The most serene pulse-taking in American presidential politics used to take place amidst golden fall colors in Washington’s Okanogan County, and in talking to regulars at the Caribou Inn, some of whom remembered Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The county’s silver miners gave their hearts to William Jennings Bryan in 1900, but Okanogan County would then vote for the winner of every presidential election until Bill Clinton in 1992. Okanogan had the nation’s longest streak of winners after Crook County, Oregon, voted in 1992 to reelect George H.W. Bush.
It would not be for long.
The rural north-central Washington county voted for Bob Dole in 1996.
It has been reliably Republican ever since.
The county even voted against local rancher Peter Goldmark when he was seeking reelection as Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands.
Our latest generation of political reporters has discovered that Clallam County has a streak going, It has voted for every presidential winner since 1980. Big (bleepin’) deal, as Joe Biden would say. The conservative Olympic Peninsula county is hardly a bellwether, having voted against Gov. Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and State Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz in November.
Still, voting habits and winning streaks tell us much about the fascinating political evolution of Washington State, which was admitted to the Union in 1889.
I grew up in an era when Eastside King County districts, notably the 41st and 48th, were the Republicans’ heartland. They didn’t really elect legislators to the State House or State Senate. That’s because an incumbent would frequently resign mid-term, with his replacement to be duly ratified by voters.
The suburbs and exurbs of King County are now solidly blue. The big legislative contest this year was the State Senate showdown between incumbent Senator Mark Mullet and challenger Ingrid Anderson. Both are Democrats. As recently as 2016, the east King County district sent two Republicans to the House.
Bellingham and Whatcom County used to be a “swing” corner of the state.
Nowadays, “Bellywash” is a liberal bastion, anchoring the all-Democratic legislative delegation from the 40th District. The next-door 42nd District was drawn to bunch together conservative towns in the county. It sent two Democratic House members to Olympia in last month’s election.
Rural Washington has moved right.
The Republicans swept legislative races in the 19th District of Southwest Washington. In 1972, anti-war Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern won in only two of Washington’s thirty-nine counties. Come 2016 and 2020, Donald Trump carried both Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties.
The Northwest has lived up to the “Left Coast” label attached by reactionary Wall Street Journal editorial writers. Washington and Oregon have backed Democratic nominees in the last nine presidential elections. Trump took just 38.77% of Washington’s vote, barely cracking forty percent in Oregon.
Alas, it’ll be a while before I make it back to Okanogan County at election season. Biden-Harris took just 41.82% of the county’s vote last month.
And the rural partially conservative Democrat, once a fixture of Washington’s political culture, has become as endangered as the spotted owl.
The Democrats did get more votes in Central and Eastern Washington – Biden-Harris narrowly carried the city of Wenatchee – but no breakthroughs.
The D’s fielded an outstanding State Senate candidate, Danielle Garbe Reser, in the 16th District (Walla Walla), but she lost by a nearly three-to-two margin.
In the 6th District (Spokane County), Republican State Representative Jenny Graham has used her Facebook page to offer links to conspiracy theorists, and left an obscenity-laced pone message with the reporter who exposed it.
She was reelected by a 7,500-vote margin.
Occasionally, there are signs of hope for a Democratic revival. Barack Obama was an A student who captured a string of B’s in 2008: He received great early year receptions in Bend Oregon, Boise, Idaho, and Bozeman, Montana. He spent the Fourth of July in Butte, Montana, and is singing its praises in his new memoir.
The Biden-Harris campaign offered a sweeping economic recovery plan to rural America, but in a year when campaigning was constricted.
The trend, however, appears unbreakable. Donald Trump has driven away once-Republican suburbs and exurbs. Democrats can thank him for recapture of the State Senate in a 2017 special election, and for a King County lineup where you have to go to Skykomish to find a Republican legislator.
The Inland West has taken a different turn.
Symbolic, last Monday, Representative Dan Newhouse became chair of the Congressional Western Caucus, which rails against “federal interference” while speaking for the oil and gas industry, timber companies, corporate agriculture, and America’s heavily subsidized mining industry.
It’s as far as you can come from William Jennings Bryan, but that’s who represents Okanogan County in Congress these days.