Democrats versus Republicans in Washington State
Democrats versus Republicans in Washington State: Artwork by the Northwest Progressive Institute, assisted by DALL-E

Repub­li­cans in Wash­ing­ton are under­stand­ably unhap­py with their recent elec­toral per­for­mances. Both of Washington’s Unit­ed States Sen­a­tors are Democ­rats. Eight of its ten Unit­ed States Rep­re­sen­ta­tives are Democ­rats. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty also con­trols both cham­bers of the state leg­is­la­ture and holds every statewide exec­u­tive office, from Gov­er­nor to Insur­ance Commissioner.

Mind­ful of the need to offer a strat­e­gy that can break the par­ty’s los­ing streak, Jim Walsh, the new Chair­man of the Wash­ing­ton State Repub­li­can Par­ty, has recent­ly sent out emails say­ing that Repub­li­cans plan to win by hav­ing high mar­gins in East­ern Wash­ing­ton. An excerpt from one of these emails is below:

There are enough votes in East­ern Wash­ing­ton to over­turn the whims of King Coun­ty. Com­mon sense can­di­dates can offer con­ser­v­a­tive ideals and win over all vot­ers. I know. I’ve done it. The main­stream media may scoff about Repub­li­cans win­ning statewide. I am telling you that we can do it. We will accom­plish all of these things. And we will do them togeth­er. If I did not believe this, I would not have run for WSRP Chairman.

Empha­sis is Walsh’s.

Every­body knows that East­ern Wash­ing­ton is pret­ty Repub­li­can, so it is under­stand­able that Walsh may want to cen­ter it in his appar­ent new grand strat­e­gy to make Wash­ing­ton red. Walsh may just be try­ing to fundraise by appeal­ing to Repub­li­cans in East­ern Wash­ing­ton who feel ignored by the state gov­ern­ment, but if he attempts to pur­sue this strat­e­gy as a recipe for Repub­li­can vic­to­ry in 2024, no one should expect it to be successful. 

Repub­li­cans have no real­is­tic path to win­ning statewide in Wash­ing­ton with­out sub­stan­tial­ly improv­ing their num­bers in King Coun­ty for three key reasons:

  • First, East­ern Wash­ing­ton makes up a much small­er per­cent­age of the statewide pop­u­la­tion than King Coun­ty does.
  • Sec­ond, East­ern Wash­ing­ton is not as Repub­li­can as many peo­ple think it is, and it is much less Repub­li­can than King Coun­ty is Democratic.
  • Third, there are parts of West­ern Wash­ing­ton that are not King Coun­ty, and, on the whole, they tend to vote Demo­c­ra­t­ic (includ­ing com­mu­ni­ties such as Aberdeen, in Wal­sh’s south­west­ern Wash­ing­ton district).

East­ern Wash­ing­ton (mean­ing, Okanogan, Chelan, Kit­ti­tas, Yaki­ma and Klick­i­tat coun­ties, and every Wash­ing­ton coun­ty to the east of them) has a sub­stan­tial­ly small­er num­ber of vot­ers than King Coun­ty, nev­er mind all of West­ern Wash­ing­ton. In 2020, King Coun­ty made up 30% of the state elec­torate, East­ern Wash­ing­ton made up 20% of the statewide elec­torate, and non-King Coun­ty West­ern Wash­ing­ton made up half of the statewide electorate.

This changes from elec­tion to elec­tion, but only on the margins.

In 2020, Biden-Har­ris won in King Coun­ty with 75% of the vote, com­pared to 22% for Trump-Pence. Trump-Pence won East­ern Wash­ing­ton 55% to 42%.

That is a fifty-three-point mar­gin for Biden-Har­ris in King Coun­ty com­pared to a thir­teen-point mar­gin for Trump-Pence in East­ern Washington.

East­ern Wash­ing­ton has some Demo­c­ra­t­ic strong­holds, like the City of Spokane, which Biden won by eigh­teen points. It has a notable num­ber of Lati­no and Native Amer­i­can vot­ers. There are sev­er­al towns with uni­ver­si­ties, which also tend to vote blue. And there are many large towns and small cities, like Wenatchee, Yaki­ma, the Tri Cities and Wal­la Wal­la, that can range from respectable Repub­li­can vic­to­ries to nar­row Demo­c­ra­t­ic wins, but they almost always keep Repub­li­can mar­gins much low­er than what they would need in East­ern Wash­ing­ton to com­pen­sate for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic mar­gin in King County.

In terms of total votes, Biden net­ted more than three times as many votes in the City of Seat­tle alone (346,736 votes more than Trump) than Trump did in all of East­ern Wash­ing­ton (102,303 more than Biden). He net­ted more than six times as many in King Coun­ty (638,143 votes over Trump).

It is pos­si­ble that over time, East­ern Wash­ing­ton could become sub­stan­tial­ly more Repub­li­can, but it is hard to imag­ine a forty-point shift any­time soon to equal Biden’s net per­cent­age mar­gin in King County.

There is not a sin­gle coun­ty in Wash­ing­ton, East or West of the Cas­cades, where Trump reached 75%. Trump came clos­est in the extreme­ly rur­al Lin­coln Coun­ty (home to Dav­en­port), where he gar­nered 73%. If Trump could not do it any­where in East­ern Wash­ing­ton last cycle, Repub­li­cans prob­a­bly can­not reach that vote share in places like Spokane, Pull­man or Cheney in the fore­see­able future.

Of course, because King Coun­ty makes up a much larg­er share of Washington’s elec­torate, if the Repub­li­can candidate’s per­cent­age lead in East­ern Wash­ing­ton were to equal the Demo­c­ra­t­ic candidate’s per­cent­age mar­gin in King Coun­ty, that would still not be close to good enough to make up for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic raw vote mar­gin in King Coun­ty. The Repub­li­can would need to beat it significantly.

In order for Trump to have made up for Biden’s King Coun­ty vote share east of the Cas­cades, assum­ing the same num­ber of bal­lots were cast, and no one vot­ed for minor par­ty can­di­dates, Trump would have need­ed an East­ern Wash­ing­ton mar­gin of around sev­en­ty-nine points (89.5% to 10.5%), which is com­plete­ly implau­si­ble. Again, his vic­to­ry mar­gin was thir­teen points in 2020.

There are peo­ple who do not usu­al­ly vote who could come out to vote in future elec­tions. But even then, it is hard to imag­ine Repub­li­cans being able to mobi­lize enough vot­ers to make up for King County’s larg­er rel­a­tive size.

As of July 2022, there were 989,818 reg­is­tered vot­ers in East­ern Wash­ing­ton. This may have increased mar­gin­al­ly in the last year, but not enough to come close to the 1.2 mil­lion who vot­ed in King Coun­ty in 2020.

Wash­ing­ton is made up of more than just East­ern Wash­ing­ton and King Coun­ty. Non-King Coun­ty West­ern Wash­ing­ton has cities such as Taco­ma, Belling­ham, Olympia and Van­cou­ver which are very Democratic.

It has Seat­tle area sub­urbs like Lyn­nwood and Bain­bridge Island and small­er towns in mid­size coun­ties like Port Townsend and Ana­cortes which also usu­al­ly vote for Democ­rats. Non-King Coun­ty West­ern Wash­ing­ton vot­ed for Biden by twelve points, 54% to 42%. With King Coun­ty includ­ed, West­ern Wash­ing­ton vot­ed for Biden by twen­ty-sev­en points. Even if Trump were to have won every vote from every East­ern Wash­ing­ton­ian who vot­ed in 2020, Biden still would have won Wash­ing­ton because of his raw vote mar­gin in West­ern Washington.

These are all hypo­thet­i­cals that will prob­a­bly nev­er hap­pen. And they all focus on one exam­ple, but statewide elec­tion after statewide elec­tion, even in clos­er elec­tions, the same sto­ry emerges. Despite Walsh’s asser­tions, there sim­ply aren’t enough votes in East­ern Wash­ing­ton to over­turn the whims of King County.

For instance, in the 2016 State Audi­tor race, Repub­li­can Mark Milos­cia won in East­ern Wash­ing­ton by twen­ty points and fought his oppo­nent, Demo­c­rat Pat McCarthy, to a vir­tu­al draw in non-King Coun­ty West­ern Washington.

Exclud­ing King Coun­ty, he won the state by five points.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly for Milos­cia, even though he had rep­re­sent­ed Fed­er­al Way in Olympia for over a decade, and for much of that time as a Demo­c­rat, he lost King Coun­ty by twen­ty-sev­en points. He lost his race for State Audi­tor by five points.

The good news for Repub­li­cans is that there are exam­ples across Amer­i­ca of places that rou­tine­ly vote for Democ­rats at the pres­i­den­tial lev­el that have recent­ly elect­ed Repub­li­cans to statewide office. Repub­li­can Lar­ry Hogan was re-elect­ed Gov­er­nor of Mary­land in a land­slide in 2018. Repub­li­can Susan Collins was elect­ed to her fifth term as Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor from Maine in 2020.

Oma­ha vot­ed for Biden for Pres­i­dent by dou­ble dig­its, but it vot­ed for Repub­li­can Jean Stothert for May­or by near­ly thir­ty points in 2021.

What all these can­di­dates have in com­mon is that they all made mas­sive inroads into very Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ing con­stituen­cies, and none of them sound­ed like a typ­i­cal Repub­li­can, nev­er mind Don­ald Trump or Loren Culp.

The even bet­ter news for the Repub­li­cans is that there is a recent exam­ple of a Repub­li­can win­ning statewide in Washington.

In 2020, even with Biden on the bal­lot, Kim Wyman was reelect­ed Sec­re­tary of State by sev­en points, best­ing Trump’s mar­gin by twen­ty-nine points.

The key to her vic­to­ry was not her sol­id num­bers in East­ern Wash­ing­ton. Wyman won because she por­trayed her­self as a non­par­ti­san elec­tion admin­is­tra­tor who ran an extreme­ly acces­si­ble vot­ing sys­tem, which was in stark con­trast to Trump, who was talk­ing non-stop about how vot­ing by mail leads to fraud.

Few Repub­li­cans in Wash­ing­ton typ­i­cal­ly use this type of messaging.

Wyman did run up the score in East­ern Wash­ing­ton, win­ning it by twen­ty-nine points, a sev­en­teen-point over­per­for­mance com­pared to Trump, but this is not why she won. Biden won Wash­ing­ton by nine­teen points, so a sev­en­teen point over­per­for­mance com­pared to Trump would not have been good enough, par­tic­u­lar­ly if it was con­fined to East­ern Washington.

Wyman out­per­formed Trump by even more in West­ern Wash­ing­ton, win­ning it by two points, a twen­ty-nine point over­per­for­mance com­pared to Trump.

She exceed­ed Trump’s mar­gin in the non-King Coun­ty por­tions of West­ern Wash­ing­ton by 25 points, win­ning them by thir­teen points (56% to 43%), while she over­per­formed Trump in King Coun­ty by thir­ty-six points, los­ing it by sev­en­teen points (59% to 41%).

Cru­cial­ly, she did not win in King Coun­ty, but she cut her Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nent Gael Tarleton’s mar­gin enough so that, unlike for Milos­cia, King Coun­ty did not make it impos­si­ble for her to win. In fact, her over­per­for­mance com­pared to Trump in King Coun­ty was her sec­ond high­est of any coun­ty in the state, with her only greater over­per­for­mance being Thurston Coun­ty, where she pre­vi­ous­ly held office as Coun­ty Audi­tor (and when Walsh emails about win­ning over vot­ers with “con­ser­v­a­tive ideals,” he prob­a­bly does not have Olympia in mind).

In short, for Repub­li­can Kim Wyman, win­ning statewide meant mak­ing major inroads every­where, but par­tic­u­lar­ly in King County.

In the Unit­ed States, peo­ple who live in denser areas tend to vote for Democ­rats, while those who live in less dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed places tend to vote for Repub­li­cans. Wash­ing­ton is much more urban than the coun­try overall.

As a con­se­quence, it tends to vote for Democrats.

Repub­li­can can­di­dates can win statewide, but that means they need to appeal to vot­ers in King Coun­ty, because, despite Jim Wal­sh’s claims, there just are not enough votes in East­ern Wash­ing­ton to over­turn King County’s whims.

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