Finding lessons in the early aftermath of an election can sometimes be a fool’s errand. Later election returns can shift the results markedly, as happened in Washington State’s recent primary elections.
It’s also easy to fall into the trap of repeating the narrative that might be primarily related to national elections but which might not have much applicability to the legislative elections.
The Morning Wire: Keeping you informed on Washington politics, policy, and political economy
All that said, in talking with our team at the Wire, and some other folks watching this year’s election closely, here are three observations that we think stand out on election night.
1. This is a fundamental campaign failure by House Democrats.
On the night of the primary election, the performance of House Democrats was so strong that it appeared possible they could win as many as 23 races. After a week of strong Republican ballot returns, results looked like Democrats could take between 13-19 new seats.
Now, sure: the primary election is not the general election. It’s a different electorate and all of that. That said, the winner of the primary is the winner of the general election in Washington State an overwhelming amount of the time, according to the chart below.
In other words, moving from picking up 13-19 seats from primary election results to picking up 4-7 is an historically uncommon event.
Put differently, I don’t recall another time in Washington State election history where there has been such a collapse of one party’s support between the primary and the general. 1994 might be the only potential case, but even that is an unlikely comparison. The trends to Republican started after Labor Day in 1994, and the primary was after Labor Day in late September.
In any case, it’s a significant collapse by House Democrats.
2. Likewise, Republican candidates deserve considerable praise for turning things around.
Not only did Republicans do better in the general than the primary in the House, they also did so in the Senate. It was reasonable to think that 5 seats would go to the Democrats following the primary: the 42nd, 26th, 6th, 30th, and the 47th. In a “blue wave,” it was possible the 12th and 35th might move, too.
As of tonight, Democrats only lead in two of those: the 30th and the 26th.
This represents a major effort and success by the Republican campaign operation in both caucuses. I’m sure a great deal of that is a result of the candidates themselves working hard. But, given the role that outside money plays in these races these days, it would appear that folks like JT Wilcox and Mark Schoesler simply outplayed their Democratic colleagues this year.
3. Seattle still doesn’t sell statewide.
This seems clear in the split results from the initiatives this year: the anti-tax vote won in two initiatives where King County and only one or two other counties had pro-tax majorities. That’s not enough to win statewide. At the same time, the initiatives that passed related to gun violence and education both had support from well beyond Seattle.
There has been a fervor building in the Democratic party since the 2016 election. This fervor has argued that the Democratic Party should be more progressive if it wants to win statewide. That doesn’t appear to be the case in these tax initiatives – including one that spoke to climate change.
It doesn’t appear to be the case with successful statewide candidates either. Maria Cantwell spoke tonight about her commitment to work across the aisle in Washington DC, rather than any effort to impeach the president. Her language was decidedly centrist in much (though not all) of her victory speech.
To win statewide requires a broader coalition than what wins hearts and minds in the 43rd or 37th. Statewide candidates forget this at their peril.