Who should replace Hilary Franz as Washington’s next Commissioner of Public Lands? That is one of the important decisions that Evergreen State voters will have to make in next year’s hugely consequential presidential election, which will decide not only what kind of federal government the country will have for the next few years, but what kind of government Washington State has as well.
With Franz leaving the executive department to run for Congress, there’s an opportunity for somebody else to take the helm of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which manages the state’s forest lands and aquatic lands.
A large field of candidates have declared for the position over the past six months, including five Democrats and two Republicans. The group of Democrats have little statewide name recognition, but they hope to make a favorable impression with Washington State voters just like Franz did back in the 2016 cycle.
They have their work cut out for them. According to our latest poll of the Washington electorate, a big plurality of voters (48%) aren’t sure who they’d vote for if the election for this office were being held today. Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler got the most support of the group of seven with 18%, followed by fellow Republican Sue Kuehl Pedersen (Franz’s 2020 opponent) with 14%.
The five Democrats, meanwhile, were all the single digits, which we figured they would be when we designed the survey. If you’re a voter taking a poll, it can be hard enough to pick from between two candidates from your party you haven’t heard of before — choosing from between five is a whole ‘nother level of difficult.
The danger for the Democratic Party is that when voters do decide who they want to support, they gravitate in roughly even numbers to three or more of the five candidates, which would split the Democratic vote so badly that Herrera Beutler and Kuehl Pedersen would end up advancing to the general election, locking the party out of the November 2023 ballot and virtually guaranteeing a Republican victor in the contest for Commissioner of Public Lands.
Sound implausible? Well, it’s not. It has happened before.
In 2016, three Democratic candidates for Treasurer split the vote so effectively that the general election runoff consisted of two Republicans. Duane Davidson went on to serve a single term as Treasurer. He was defeated for reelection in 2020 by Democrat Mike Pellicciotti, a rising star in the state House.
Republicans subsequently locked themselves out of the 2020 contest for lieutenant governor and the 2022 contest for Secretary of State by having too many candidates of equivalent electoral strength splitting the vote.
The Democratic Party has time to reduce the size of its field, but that time can arguably now be better measured in weeks as opposed to months since the filing period is quickly approaching. The party and its key stakeholders will have to decide what actions, if any, they want to take to winnow the field before then.
Here’s the exact text of the question we asked and the responses:
QUESTION: If the election for Commissioner of Public Lands of Washington State were being held today and the candidates were Democrat Mona Das, Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler, Democrat Kevin Van De Wege, Republican Sue Kuehl Pedersen, Democrat Rebecca Saldaña, Democrat Dave Upthegrove, and Democrat Patrick DePoe, who would you vote for?
Half the poll sample saw the question with the order of candidates as shown above and half the sample saw the question with the order of candidates shown below. The wording was the same, but the order was inverted to make the question as neutral as possible.
If the election for Commissioner of Public Lands of Washington State were being held today and the candidates were Democrat Patrick DePoe, Democrat Dave Upthegrove, Democrat Rebecca Saldaña, Republican Sue Kuehl Pedersen, Democrat Kevin Van De Wege, Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler, and Democrat Mona Das, who would you vote for?
- Jaime Herrera Beutler (R): 18%
- Sue Kuehl Pedersen (R): 14%
- Rebecca Saldaña (D): 6%
- Patrick DePoe (D): 5%
- Mona Das (D): 5%
- Dave Upthegrove (D): 3%
- Kevin Van De Wege (D): 2%
- Not sure: 48%
Our survey of 700 likely 2024 Washington State voters was in the field from Tuesday, November 14th through Wednesday, November 15th, 2023.
The poll utilizes a blended methodology, with automated phone calls to landlines (42%) and online answers from respondents recruited by text (58%).
It was conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP) for the Northwest Progressive Institute, and has a margin of error of +/- 3.7% at the 95% confidence interval.
Insights from the crosstabs
In the toplines, none of the Democrats really stand out. The crosstabs are more interesting. Among female voters, Rebecca Saldaña and Patrick DePoe each got 9%, while Das got 3%, Van De Wege 1%, and Upthegrove 4%. Voters identifying as male, meanwhile, were very supportive of Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler’s candidacy — 24% of them, nearly a quarter, said they’d vote for her.
54% of Democratic voters said they were undecided, joined by 54% of independent voters and 30% of Republican voters. A plurality of Republican voters (35%) favored Kuehl Pedersen, likely owing to Herrera Beutler’s impeachment vote. Herrera Beutler has plurality support with independents (21%) and pulls some Democratic voters as well, likely for the very same reason.
DePoe is the most popular choice of Democratic voters, with 12%, followed by Saldaña at 10%, Das at 6%, Upthegrove at 5%, and Van De Wege at 2%.
A small number of Republican voters picked Das (2%), Saldaña (3%), and Upthegrove (3%), but none were interested in Van De Wege or DePoe.
Herrera Beutler leads among voters of color with 18%. DePoe gets 13% from voters of color, Kuehl Pedersen 11%, and Das 12%. Only 34% of voters of color said they were not sure, compared to 48% of the whole sample.
Herrera Beutler also has some appeal with young voters: 30% of voters ages eighteen to twenty-nine picked her in the survey. Das was the runner-up among that group with 16%, followed by Saldaña and DePoe, each with 11%.
No young voters picked Upthegrove, Kuehl Pedersen, or Van De Wege.
Van De Wege was the worst performer in the survey, with 2% support among Democrats, 0% among Republicans, and 1% among independents.
The senator has been raising money, but his path to victory seems to have gotten rockier, given that well-funded groups that might have been interested in his candidacy now have Herrera Beutler as an alternative option.
Progressive and environmental organizations, meanwhile, may opt to endorse one of the other four Democrats given Van De Wege’s positions and record of occasionally voting against Democratic priorities in the statehouse.
We’ll keep an eye on this race and bring you more data in 2024.