The 2016 Washington State Primary Elections: Results and Implications

by John Stafford

(Disclosure and Note: The author is a member of the 37th District Democrats, and a candidate to complete the State Senate term of Pramila Jayapal, if she prevails in her race to fill the seat of Jim McDermott in the 7th Congressional District.)


This article analyzes the Washington State 2016 Primary Elections, which were held on August 2.  It does not provide a comprehensive review of election results.  Instead, it provides a summary and discusses themes, referencing select races as necessary in support of these objectives.  There are six sections:  voter turnout and demographics; summary of results — federal, statewide, and judicial; summary of results – legislative; projecting from the primary election to the general election; election issues; and conclusions.


Voter turnout for the primary election was low — 34% of registered voters voted (compared to 38% and 43% in the last two presidential election-year primaries).  This represents a continuation of an ongoing trend of declining voter participation in Washington State primaries.  The fact that Washington State holds its primaries in the vacation month of August certainly does not help turnout (but this does not explain the decline relative to prior years, as these primaries were also held in August).  Twelve other states hold their primary elections in August.1

An initial review of demographic data suggests that Washington State is becoming even more politically polarized.  Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times writes, “The liberal part of the state voted against the Republican brand more resoundingly than ever on Tuesday, swamping Republicans in King County…Conservative counties are getting redder while King trends ever more blue.”2 The historical rule-of-thumb has been that a GOP candidate needs to earn 40% of the vote in King County in order to prevail in a statewide race.  The increasing polarization in the state may necessitate a downward revision of this figure.  Not a single Republican statewide candidate obtained 40% of the vote in this year’s primary, with incumbent Secretary of State Kim Wyman the closest at 36% (and she does maintain a narrow lead statewide).3

Prior to discussing primary results, it is important to consider several issues of interpretation.  An obvious caution is to not just look at the percentages of votes received by the top two vote-getters in order to determine the general election favorite.  Instead, one must consider the structure of the voting in the race.  For example, for Lieutenant Governor, Cyrus Habib (D) leads with 22% of the vote and Marty McClendon (R) is second with 19%, a difference of just 3%.  However, there were 11 candidates in the race, and of the remaining 59% of the vote, 36% was for Democrats; 19% for Republicans; and 4% for others.  Habib will surely attract a very high percentage of the Democratic vote that he did not earn in the primary, making him the overwhelming favorite in the general election, despite his small 3% primary lead.  The inverse corollary to this phenomenon, however, is that some races may not be as good as they seem for a certain party.  For example, in the 5th Legislative District race for State Representative (Position 2), Republican Paul Graves earned 46% of the vote; Democrat Darcy Burner earned 37%; and Democrat Matt Larson earned 17%.  Using the aforementioned approach, one might be tempted to conclude that Burner looks well-positioned in the general election, by adding Larson’s 17% to her 37%, leading to a projected 54% to 46% Democratic advantage.  However, the situation is far more complicated than this.  First, the 5th Legislative District is highly balanced between Democrats and Republicans.  Thus, some of Larson’s vote may have been more candidate-driven than party-driven, and therefore go to Graves in the general election.  Perhaps more important is the fact that Graves, confident that he would progress to the general election, did not campaign or spend aggressively in the primary, choosing instead to wait and see who his general election opponent would be.  Thus, he earned 46% of the primary vote with very little effort or expenditure, leaving him well-positioned to improve his standing in the general election.  In short, one must understand the structure of the primary election results as well as their context in order to evaluate their implications for the general election.


At the federal level, Patty Murray achieved a predictable landslide victory, and the incumbents prevailed in every Congressional race, generally handily.  In the 7th Congressional District Race to replace retiring fourteen -term congressman Jim McDermott, Pramila Jayapal (42%) doubled the vote percentage of Brady Walkinshaw (21%), who narrowly defeated Joe McDermott (19%) for second place.  While Jayapal’s victory was not a surprise, many analysts were surprised by its magnitude.

For state executive positions (of which there are 9 including Governor), Washington State currently has one Republican incumbent – Kim Wyman, the Secretary of State (the Secretary of State Office has been held by the GOP since 1965).  This Democratic dominance of statewide offices is a pattern on the liberal West Coast:  no Republican has won a statewide election in Oregon since 2002, or in California since 2006.

The Washington State Primary was interesting in this regard.  Wyman’s challenger, Democrat Tina Podlodowski, is within 2% of Wyman (48% to 46%), leading many to predict that she will unseat Wyman in the general election, when Democratic candidates tend to improve their results (discussed further below).  This prediction is complicated somewhat by the fact that a third candidate in the race, Libertarian Tim Turner, earned 6% of the vote, the majority of which will likely go to Wyman in the general election.

However, even if Podlodowski does prevail, the GOP is certain to hold at least one statewide office.  For State Treasurer, the top two finishers (Duane Davidson and Michael Waite) are both Republicans.  In addition, for State Auditor, Mark Miloscia (R) leads Pat McCarthy (D) by 8%.  The interpretation of this result is complicated by the fact that the third place finisher (Democrat Jeff Sprung) earned 24% of the vote, and this will predominantly accrue to McCarthy in the general election.  Similarly, for Commissioner of Public Lands, Republican Steve McGlaughlin leads Democrat Hilary Franz by 15%, but the overwhelming majority of the remaining vote was for Democratic candidates, making Franz the general election favorite.  In short, the GOP will definitely occupy one statewide office, and has some chances elsewhere.

On the judicial side, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Madsen received 64% of the vote to challenger Greg Zempel’s 30%, despite $116,000 of spending against her by the advocacy organization, Stand for Children, which supports Charter Schools (Madsen wrote last year’s State Supreme Court Opinion that declared privately run, publicly funded charter schools to be unconstitutional).


The single most critical issue in the 2016 Washington Election is control of the State Legislature.  Democrats currently have a narrow majority in the House (50-48), while Republicans have a small majority in the Senate (26-23).  Thus, both chambers are in play.  This is one of the highest stakes years in recent memory for control of the State Legislature, because this is the year in which full compliance with the McCleary Decision (calling for a dramatic increase in state spending on K-12 education) must be achieved.  Compliance with McCleary will require a tax increase – supported by Democrats but anathema to Republicans.  If control of either chamber reverts to the other side, there will likely be significant implications for the state’s tax structure and its approach to educational finance.  It is also important to note the recent historical context:  in 2008, the Democrats had an 18 seat majority in the House (63-35) and a 13 seat majority in the Senate (31-18).

For the State Senate, there are three spectacularly close races.  In the 5th Legislative District (Issaquah, North Bend), incumbent Democrat Mark Mullet leads Republican Chad Magendanz by 314 votes.  In the 17th Legislative District (near Vancouver) contest to replace the retiring Don Benton, Republican Lynda Wilson leads Democrat Tim Probst by 33 votes.  And in the 41st Legislative District (Mercer Island, South Bellevue), Democrat Lisa Wellman leads incumbent Republican Steve Litzow by 298 votes. 

For the State House, there are a number of close races.  In the 30th Legislative District (Federal Way, Auburn), Democrat Kristine Reeves has a 13 vote lead over incumbent Republican Teri Hickel (the other House race in the 30th Legislative District is close as well).  There are other interesting races in the 5th (discussed previously), 19th, 26th, 35th and  44th Legislative Districts.

It is difficult (impossible) to prognosticate the outcome of all of these elections.  However, it is fair to say that there are more than enough close races to make the outcome in both chambers unclear.  Most importantly, there is a very real chance for the Democrats to retake control of the State Senate, which would represent a tectonic development in the state’s political landscape.  This is due to the expected improvement for Democrats between the primary election and the general election – the subject of the next section.


Naturally, voter turnout will rise considerably in the general election:  In the last two presidential-year elections in Washington State, turnout went from 38% to 81% (2012) and from 43% to 85% (2008) between the primary and general elections.  Typically, this increased turnout favors Democratic candidates.  There are several reasons for this, most notably younger voters have a higher tendency to vote just in the general election, and they have a higher tendency to vote Democratic.  State Representative Joe Fitzgibbon (D, 34th Legislative District) states that Democratic candidates generally obtain a 5% bump between the primary and the general election.4

Several additional factors in this election year will likely further assist Democratic candidates.  First, the economic situation (both nationally and in Washington State) is reasonably strong, which portends favorably for Democrats, since they occupy the White House.  The July jobs report was stronger than expected (225,000 jobs were created relative to the expected 185,000), unemployment rates are low, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is hovering above 18,500, near all-time highs and more than 12,000 points higher than the nadir realized under Obama’s predecessor.  Second and related, Obama’s job approval ratings are high, which will benefit Clinton (and hence Democratic candidates), whose platform represents an extension of (rather than a repudiation of) Obama’s policy profile.  Third, the Trump campaign is (predictably) in a state of astonishing disarray.  If this continues, it will likely have significant down-ballot implications that will be extremely favorable for Democratic candidates.  These three factors, while relevant in the primary, will become far more salient in the general election, as a higher percentage of the voters will be influenced by presidential election sentiment.  In short, state races that are currently close will likely trend Democratic, and more so this year than most.

It is important to recognize that Trump represents an existential challenge for state Republican candidates.  On the one hand, a Republican candidate that supports Trump calls into question his/her own credibility.  On the other hand, a candidate who disassociates with Trump can alienate party loyalists.  Finally, adopting a noncommittal position regarding Trump — an approach taken by state gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant — is also problematic, as it conveys equivocation (Danny Westneat writes:  “Meanwhile, Bryant has shown all the spine of a geoduck.”5). Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, sums up the Trump dilemma:  “Do we run the risk of depressing our base by repudiating the guy, or do we run the risk of being tarred and feathered by independents for not repudiating him?  We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”6 There is, however, one ironic effect of the Trump debacle that may help Republican candidates.  Some of the traditional GOP presidential backers (e.g., the Koch Brothers) are choosing to not make contributions to the Trump campaign, and are instead choosing to allocate these funds to conservative candidates in state and local races.


There are several issues worth considering that are associated with this year’s primary.  First, Washington State has a top-two primary system, where the top two vote getters, irrespective of party, proceed to the general election.  I support this model, as it prioritizes voter will over party prerogative.  However, it does have drawbacks.  For example, in the State Treasurer race, there were five candidates – three Democrats and two Republicans.  Over half of the vote went to Democratic candidates, and yet the top two vote-getters were both Republicans.  In effect, the fact that there were more Democratic candidates than Republican candidates led to greater sabotage on the Democratic side.  One wonders if advancing two Republican candidates truly reflects the will of the voters.  These types of results suggest the practical but troubling strategy of a party working to limit the number of its candidates that enter any given race in order to reduce the sabotage effect.

Second, when a candidate announces his withdrawal from a race before the primary (as Democrat Tony Ventrella did in his race for U.S. Representative against Republican incumbent Dave Reichert in the 8th Congressional District), should he still be allowed to advance to the general election when voters vote for him anyway?  Would it not be better to allow the third-place candidate (in this case, Santiago Ramos, who finished 3% behind Ventrella) to advance?  It is odd to read a newspaper headline that states, “Ventrella on November Ballot, but he won’t be Running.”7

Third, the Seattle Times reported a troubling voting rights infringement.  Only a few of the state’s 38 county jails with inmates eligible to vote have a process in place to facilitate voting:  “The result:  Thousands of citizens who have the constitutional right to vote are not able to register, receive ballots or cast a vote…”8 As always, disenfranchised voter groups tend to be Democratic-leaning constituents.

Fourth, the State Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing for September 7 to discuss legislative progress toward complying with the McCleary decision.  By all accounts, very little (if any) progress will have been made by then.  This may lead the Court to impose sanctions (potentially involving school closures and/or a repeal of tax breaks as a means to increase funding for K-12 education).  In my view, if the Court decides to impose sanctions, it should do so after the general election in November, to ensure that its actions don’t add an unwarranted dynamic to the election (and one that would likely hurt Democratic candidates).


This was a fascinating primary, setting the stage for a momentous general election.  There are several important themes.  First, the stakes for Washington State in this election are enormous, as both chambers of the State Legislature are in play at this critical juncture in the state’s legislative history (due to the need to address McCleary).  Second, the primary election results reveal a number of close races in both the House and the Senate, making both chambers subject to a potential switch in party control.  Third, several factors will serve to significantly improve the election results of Democratic candidates between the primary and the general election, including the Trump down-ballot effect.   Fourth, therefore, there is a significant opportunity for the Democratic Party to take control of the State Senate.  This would represent an enormous shift in the state’s political balance of power.

In addition (and heretofore undiscussed), this is an important year for ballot initiatives.  In the primary election, the City of Seattle Housing Levy passed, despite being twice as expensive as the prior levy.  The proposal to build a waterfront elevated park (Initiative 123) did not come close to passing.  In the general election, there will be a rash of critical initiatives:  I-732 will seek to put a price on carbon in Washington State to address climate change;  I-735 advocates for a U.S. Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United; I-1433 seeks a significant increase in the state minimum wage; I-1464 seeks to reform campaign finance by implementing a voucher system for publically funded elections (and includes a number of other provisions); Proposition 1 requests major funding for the next phase of Sound Transit’s expansion (Sound Transit 3).  I support all of these initiatives.

The 2016 elections will be extremely consequential for Washington State.  The primary results suggest that they represent an unusual opportunity for significant, structural, progressive change.

John Stafford is a senior substitute teacher for Seattle Public Schools.  He is a former partner with Strategic Planning Associates, a corporate strategy management consulting firm in Washington, D.C.  He has a B.A. from Dartmouth College, and M.A. from St. Martin’s University and is completing an M.A. from the Harvard Extension School.  He is involved with the Democratic Party in South Seattle.


  1. Source:
  2. Danny Westneat, Primary’s Beauty Contest Exposes Ugly Rift in State. The Seattle Times, August 2, 2016.
  3. Danny Westneat, Primary’s Beauty Contest Exposes Ugly Rift in State. The Seattle Times, August 2, 2016.
  4. Referenced by Tom James, Primary Sharpens Fight To Control Legislature. Crosscut Online, August 2, 2016.
  5. Danny Westneat, State GOP Wrestles with Trump Dilemma. The Seattle Times, August 7, 2016.
  6. Referenced by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns (of the New York Times), GOP Hopefuls Skirting Top of the Ticket. Published in the Seattle Times, August 7, 2016.
  7. Seattle Times, August 4, 2016.
  8. From report by Disability Rights Washington. Cited by Martha Bellisle of the Associated Press, Report:  Jails in State Fail at Voting Access.  The Seattle Times, August 7, 2016.

 Featured image is a cc licensed courtesy of Joe Mabel/Flickr

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