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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, September 5th, 2023

Republicans in Washington State cannot just ignore King County and expect to win

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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