An extremely weak field of Republican candidates for Secretary of State is proving to be no match for Washington State’s unforgiving two-part general election system this year. With three counts now completed, it looks like Democratic incumbent Steve Hobbs will be facing unaffiliated candidate (and Pierce County Auditor) Julie Anderson this fall, leaving Republicans shut out of the final round for an office they continuously controlled from the 1950s until last year.
In most states, this dynamic would be unheard of, because across much of the United States, voters get to participate in real primaries to choose the major party’s nominees for different offices. Those nominees then appear on the general election ballot, representing their respective parties. But not in Washington!
Here, there is no primary at all. Instead, there is a two-part general election in which the top two vote getters advance out of the first round, regardless of party. (It is called a primary by state and county officials, but that doesn’t make it one.)
Since Washington doesn’t guarantee the major parties spots on the November ballot for a given office — with the notable exception of President and Vice President of the United States — the parties have to be unified and disciplined to avoid the possibility of being shut out of the general election for a key office.
Democrats enthusiastically rallied around Secretary Hobbs, Governor Inslee’s choice to succeed Secretary Kim Wyman, who resigned last November to take a job with CISA. Hobbs has over 40% of the vote against a seven-candidate field and is way out ahead in first place. Meanwhile, Republicans splintered.
A total of three candidates identifying as Republicans filed against Hobbs in May — State Senator Keith Wagoner, former State Senator Mark Miloscia, and Bob Hagglund — along with a fourth (semi) Republican candidate with a split identity: conspiracy theorist Tamborine Borrelli, who dubbed herself on the ballot as aligned with the America First (R) Party. (In reality, there is no such entity: Borrelli invented the label, which state law unfortunately allows her to do.)
None of the Republicans became a proper frontrunner for their party, resulting in a nightmare for Republicans: a three-way vote split among right wing voters that’s allowing Anderson to skate right on by the entire Republican field.
2022 special election for Washington Secretary of State
Results as of 08/04/2022 6:00 PM
Democratic | 600,934 votes
Other | 193,954 votes
|Keith L Wagoner|
Republican | 178,738 votes
Republican | 177,709 votes
Republican | 146,978 votes
Democratic | 115,062 votes
Other | 63,365 votes
Other | 5,288 votes
Something similar has happened in each of the past two cycles in which a statewide executive office was on the ballot. In 2016, three Democratic candidates for Treasurer split the Democratic vote so well that two Republicans were able to get past them and make it to the general election.
And in 2020, three Republican candidates for Lieutenant Governor cancelled each other out, resulting in a general election contest between two Democrats.
2016 taught Democrats a lesson, and they demonstrated that they had learned from it in 2020, when they put up a single, strong, credible candidate for Treasurer: Mike Pellicciotti, a rising star in the party who served two terms in the State House. Pellicciotti prevailed, becoming the only Democratic challenger to a statewide Republican incumbent to win pretty much anywhere in 2020.
Republicans don’t seem to have learned a similar lesson. They can curse the bad, voter-approved Top Two system, but they can’t change their fate now.
In the past, Republicans benefited from what you could call the Thurston County to state capitol pipeline: A veteran Republican Secretary of State would retire (like Ralph Munro) and pass the baton to the Thurston County Auditor (like Sam Reed or Kim Wyman) who would then run statewide to keep the office in Republican hands. The party would unite behind that candidate and reap the benefits of having a reasonable Republican with elections experience as the standard bearer.
Democrats, however, extinguished that pipeline a few years ago by getting Mary Hall elected as Thurston County Auditor. Hall was one of several individuals considered to be Wyman’s successor by Governor Jay Inslee, along with Hobbs, Anderson, and King County Elections Director Julie Wise. Hall has endorsed Hobbs to serve out the remainder of Wyman’s unexpired term.
Washington State has other counties with Republican auditors, but none of them wanted to take on Hobbs. That left a vacuum, which various Republicans tried to fill. One of them was Wagoner, a state senator from a rural district that spans parts of Snohomish, Skagit, and King counties. Wagoner declared early and secured the support of Reed and Munro, who were crucial surrogates of Wyman’s, but then squandered his advantage by raising very little money.
For a while, Wagoner’s main competition was just fellow Republican Bob Hagglund. But during Filing Week, fundamentalist Mark Milsocia, who has run unsuccessfully twice for Auditor, jumped into the race, seeing an opportunity. Miloscia’s entry had the effect of fracturing the Republican field even further, increasing the likelihood of disaster in the August Top Two election.
NPI’s June 2022 polling confirmed the peril facing Republicans. In that survey, we found 17% support for Hobbs and 56% undecided, with everyone else mired in the single digits. Wagoner registered at an anemic 6%, Hagglund, Borrelli, and Anderson clocked in at 5% each, and Miloscia received a pathetic 2%.
Having raised so little money, Wagoner could not go up on television and introduce himself to voters. But Anderson, who was fully prepared to take advantage of the odd dynamics of a Top Two election, could… and did.
Anderson’s preparedness, work ethic, and strategic investment in voter communication paid off. She’s getting enough support in the vote-rich counties that border Puget Sound to claim that second place spot.
Anderson is Hobbs’ closest rival in King, Pierce, Thurston, Whatcom, and Kitsap counties. In Pierce County, she has of the vote. In King, she has 13.01%. In Thurston, 14.18%. In Whatcom, 13.97%. In Kitsap, 13.51%.
Until today, Wagoner (who has the second place spot in Snohomish and Skagit counties) wasn’t even in third place. He finally overtook Bob Hagglund today.
Hagglund’s position as the initial top vote getter among the Republican candidates left many observers surprised. Hagglund has little name familiarity and hasn’t run a high profile campaign. But early Republican voters who were not impressed with either Wagoner or Miloscia gravitated to him. He’s actually winning several small counties outright: Lewis, Grant, Lincoln, Ferry, Columbia, Garfield, and Asotin. He’s also in second place in Grays Harbor, Pacific, and Wahkiakum.
In February, months before Miloscia’s entry in the race, we tested a hypothetical three-way matchup between Hobbs, Wagoner, and Anderson. Hobbs had a plurality lead, with Wagoner in second and Anderson a distant third.
Three way matchups are not allowed in the general election by state law, but we included Anderson in our question because she was a credible candidate with the potential to go further than an independent candidate usually would.
Facing Hobbs plus a well-funded Republican with the stature of Wyman, Anderson would probably have been eliminated in this round. But this is Washington State in the year 2022. Kim Wyman is gone, having taken her talents and experience to the Biden administration, and she left no Republican heir apparent behind her.
That means there will continue to be no Republican in Washington’s executive department during the remainder of this presidential cycle. It’s the latest embarrassing election fiasco for the Washington State Republican Party in a cycle that has been a disappointment so far on pretty much every level.