by Geov Parrish
Primaries in even-numbered years with no presidential or governor’s elections and no local elections other than the Washington Legislature traditionally have the lowest turnout of any of the state’s primary election days. In 2014, the last such year, fewer than 30 percent of eligible King County voters actually voted—about 351,000 of 1.175 million.
This year, county officials expect a turnout of about 40 percent for Tuesday’s primary. So when analyzing the first night’s returns Tuesday night, two numbers jump out. The first is that 316,459 early ballots have already been counted by the day of the election—nearly as many as were counted in the entire primary in 2014. The second, though, is the number of eligible King County voters: 1,283,855. King County has added a net of 108,525 voters in only the past four years, meaning that well over that number didn’t vote here in 2014. (And at that sustained rate of increase, it would only take a decade or so to double 2014’s numbers.) Whether that increase comes from angry, anti-Trump voters motivated for the first time in at least a while to vote, or from the huge recent influx of (largely affluent, and thus more ideologically mixed) new residents, will tell us lot about not only the extent of this year’s much-touted “blue wave,” but what type of blue wave it will be: more establishment-oriented or a more radical departure from past elections.
All this especially matters because for the first time in memory, the focus of local attention this year is almost exclusively in Seattle’s near suburbs—areas which have been transformed in recent years from prosperous, overwhelmingly white idyls to denser, more diverse ring cities, often now home to large immigrant populations and people who have fled Seattle’s exploding rents. In virtually all of these areas, the political and economic establishment hasn’t changed along with the cities themselves. In many cases, this year is the first time that their civic leadership might look and sound more like the people they serve. Potentially.
That’s why voters within the city of Seattle can be forgiven for thinking this was a meaningless primary, with only a handful of virtually uncontested incumbents to vote for (or, futilely, against). There were a half dozen white-hot races on the primary ballot (many of which will carry over to November), but they’re all in the burbs. And not only are a lot of former Seattle residents living in these areas now (Bellevue, Federal Way, Shoreline, Kent Valley), but at the state and federal levels, what they decide will matter in a host of ways for Seattle residents.
Based entirely on last night’s initial returns, we already know this much: there’s definitely a big blue wave happening locally this year. But especially when Democrats are matched against each other, it’s not the most progressive Democratic candidates who are usually winning.
Let’s take a closer look at those races:
U.S. House of Representatives, District 8: Not much is at stake in this race, other than, oh, I dunno, the future of the world and stuff.
Specifically, after seven terms and far too many years, former King County Sheriff Dave Reichert is retiring as a Republican congressman serving eastern King County and a swath of Central Washington centered on Wenatchee and Ellensburg. In 2012, state Republicans protected Reichert from the changing demographics of the Eastside by adding that east-of-the-mountains segment to the district. This year, even that may not be enough. Metro Cle Elum just can’t compete with the many tens of thousands of new Democratic-leaning voters the Eastside has added in recent years.
Democrats need to win a net of 24 seats currently held by Republicans to take back the House of Representatives. To say that having the Democrats win back at least one house of Congress dramatically increases the chance that we can save American democracy is, sadly, not so much hyperbole any longer. Another two years of Republicans running everything in D.C. and who knows which of us will be on the official Enemies of the People list by 2020. Vote now, so that we can vote later. The stakes in an American election have never been higher than they will be this November—and that includes the presidential election of 1860. At minimum, two more years of unfettered Trump mean slashed social services, state terrorism against immigrant, the further normalization of overt racism, and federal dollars yanked from sanctuary cities like Seattle (and every other prosperous city in the country). Oh, and a constitutional crisis or ten.
We can at least lessen the chances of all that by electing Democrats in districts like WA-08,. Every national list of possible Democratic pickups includes WA-08 – and if Dems can’t take our Eastside district despite its surging urban (and Democratic-leaning) population growth, it likely won’t win back the House or Senate come November, either.
The Republican opponent for Reichert’s seat in November is back, again, from the dead: Dino Rossi, who nearly won the governorship in 2004 (and still thinks he did) by pretending to be a lot more moderate than the frothing, Trump-adoring self he’s fessing up to as the 2018 Rossi. And Rossi 4.0—despite having already lost three statewide gubernatorial and U.S. Senate campaigns—can still draw on nearly unlimited money and the love of fellow Trump fetishists everywhere. So the paramount task for our eastern and southern suburban neighbors in this primary was to pick, among the three significant Democratic candidates, the one with the best chance of beating Rossi, and thereby helping neutralize Trump and preserve our options for life, liberty, and a 2020 ballot.
Those three candidates are Shannon Hader, a public health director from Auburn; Jason Rittereiser, a former deputy King County prosecutor from Ellensburg; and Kim Schrier, a Sammamish pediatrician. And while it’s too close to call after Tuesday night, Kim Schrier is the leading Democrat in four of the district’s five counties. Rittereiser easily won his home county in Ellensburg, but he trails by 1,261 votes.
The relative positions of the three Dems after one night track with expectations—Schrier was considered the favorite, with important endorsements from labor and women’s groups and is the early favorite. She’s also allegedly the most progressive of the three, in a district that has never elected a Democrat in its 38-year history. But the surprise here is that Rossi “won” the primary with (so far) 43,277 votes, but the three leading Dems combined have (so far) 49,296 votes. Add the minor candidates that were from the two major parties and the Democrats were still comfortably ahead. Rossi will get today’s headlines, but either Schrier or Rittereiser will be the favorite to win when it counts. A lot can happen in three months, but at least tentatively that’s very good news.
And there’s further good news: at least two other congressional districts in our state, centered on Vancouver/Clark County and Spokane, might unseat their Republican incumbents in November. In both, after one night the Democrat in the race narrowly trails but is close enough to not encumber fundraising in the next two months ahead of the general election, which is usually somewhat more left-leaning than our summer primaries. And that’s likely even more true when we have a president who spews daily tantrums to distract voters from his horrifying policies and coming indictments.
U.S. House of Representatives, District 9: In this suburban race, it’s the incumbent Democrat facing a progressive challenger. Once upon a time in 1990, Adam Smith was a dynamic young politician. That year, he was elected to the state senate at age 25, becoming at the time the youngest state senator in the country. Six years later, he was elected to Congress.
He’s been there ever since. This year, he’s seeking his 12th two-year term in a district that has completely changed under him. What was once a bucolic suburban/exurban district where Smith could carve out a comfortable career representing Boeing and Fort Lewis is now the state’s only minority-majority congressional district, covering south King and parts of Pierce Counties. Smith, a hawkish Democrat who’s risen over the years to become the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, hasn’t faced a serious challenge in years. But now he’s got one, in a district he no longer fits.
His challenger, Sarah Smith, is being compared by a lot of observers to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young Bronx firebrand who in June upset powerful incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley (who is white) in an almost entirely Latino and Black district. The parallels aren’t exact, but Smith’s politics are similar enough to Ocasio-Cortez that it will be fascinating, and telling, to see how she does in a district that doesn’t even remotely resemble the one Adam Smith, like Joe Crowley, was first elected in,
For the primary, Sarah’s task is to get more votes than the Republican candidate, Doug Basler, even to get to November, a barrier Ocasio-Cortez didn’t face. After Night One, she’s trailing by 2,941 votes. That’s close enough to be surmountable in the coming days, but not easily. Most likely, Adam Smith will get his 12th term easily now.
State Senate, District 30: A lot of state legislative races are interesting, and almost all are also in Seattle’s changing suburbs. Federal Way is one of those suburbs whose demographics have shifted a lot in recent years, with a large influx of immigrants and other non-whites fleeing Seattle rents. Inexplicably, they are still represented in the state senate by Mark Miloscia, one of the most obnoxious of Olympia’s Republicans. (Yes, that’s a high bar.) You may remember this homophobic, anti-abortion culture warrior from his PR stunting in Belltown last summer bashing The Big City for trying to house its homeless. Yeah, that guy.
Happily, for the first time in ages Miloscia has drawn a strong opponent: Claire Wilson, a former teacher who is Federal Way’s school board director. Wilson represents Democrats’ best chance for buttressing the slim one-vote margin by which Democrats took back control of the state senate in 2016, breaking years of Republican-backed gridlock in Olympia. Wilson will make the general election, but Miloscia, after one night, is more comfortably ahead than expected, 48-39%. Wilson will have a steep hill to climb to catch him.
State Senate and House, District 32: For at least the past two decades, two things have been constants in local politics: 1) Seattle’s legislative districts are dominated by Democrats; 2) Of those Democrats, the ones in Shoreline and North Seattle’s Legislative District 32 are always at war with each other.
The basic split is between corporate centrists and progressives. In the ’90s it was remnants of the Rainbow Coalition at war with Clinton supporters. Now, it’s Bernie Sanders fans against, uh, Clinton supporters. In this race, the war features incumbent Senator Maralyn Chase. She’s one of the few members of Seattle’s legislative delegation—the safest and most left-leaning Democratic districts in the state—who’s unapologetically progressive.
None of that will ever do. The corporate wing’s challenger, Shoreline deputy mayor Jesse Saloman, has, remarkably, raised more money than Chase; he has establishment Dems fully in his corner. And last night he won, beating Chase by 43-36 percent—again, a margin Chase can overcome in a more left-leaning November election, but it won’t be easy.
Over in the House, the two factions are vying to replace the retiring corporatist Ruth Kagi, Here, with no power of incumbency on the side of the progressives, it wasn’t as close. Lauren Davis, a Gates Foundation alum with the most money and the endorsements of Kagi and the same establishment roster that’s backing Saloman is easily beating former Shoreline mayor and city councilman Chris Roberts, 54-24%.
State Senate, District 34: A half dozen Democrats are seeking to replace the retiring Sharon Nelson. The frontrunners were the more progressive Joe Nguyen and centrist Shannon Braddock, an aide to King County Councilman Joe McDermott last seen in 2015 losing her Chamber-backed bid for Seattle City Council to Lisa Herbold by the narrowest of margins, despite outspending Herbold 3-1. Nguyen and Braddock will face each other in November, with Nguyen barely head after last night (28-27%) but both lapping the other candidates.
State House, District 41: Centrist Democrat Judy Clibborn is retiring after roughly 137 years in the state legislature. Her designated successor, Wendy Welker, was supposed to coast to victory as her successor.
Based on last night’s first results, that won’t be happening, because Welker didn’t make it out of a three-way race in the primary. Instead, Republican Michael Appleby, with 33%, will be facing this election’s breakthrough winner for not only Democrats but underrepresented suburban immigrants. Bellevue School Board President My-Linh Thai leads the race for Clibborn’s seat with 41% of the vote so far. She’ll come out of the primary as a strong favorite to win this suburban House seat in November.
Democrats did very well Tuesday night, including in suburban districts where they’ve rarely done well in the past. But those wins have limits. Sarah Smith looks like she’ll fall short of the general election in WA-09. The more progressive choice among Democrats is winning in Bellevue and in a dead heat in West Seattle, but getting clobbered in two separate races, one of them featuring an incumbent, in Shoreline. The surge in progressive candidates energized by changing demographics and/or Bernie Sander’s 2016 presidential run has made a lot of progress this year, but is likely to be more consistently competitive in 2020.
And statewide, while the misbehaving #MeToo Democratic legislator isn’t surviving his primary (David Sawyer in Tacoma), Republicans aren’t punishing their miscreants: Matt Shea and Matt Manweller are both comfortably ahead in their Eastern and Central (respectively) Washington districts.
Lastly, and most importantly for us locally and for the world, our state’s congressional races are tilting heavily for Democrats. None of the state’s six Democratic House incumbents (including Adam Smith) are in serious danger, but two of three Republicans are, and Democrats won more votes in the district of the retiring fourth Republican, Dave Reichert. Maria Cantwell, meanwhile, is ahead of Republican challenger Susan Hutchison in a crowded primary by over 30 percent. Democrats currently hold eight of our state’s 12 congressional seats. That ratio could be 13-1 after November.
Now the campaigning begins in earnest.
Geov Parrish is a long-time writer and activist who has been featured on KEXP Radio’s “Mind Over Matters” show each week since 1996. He has also served as national political columnist for Working Assets, a contributing editor for In These Times, Alternet.org, and MotherJones.com, and the local political columnist for Seattle Weekly and The Stranger newspapers. He founded and published the community newspaper Eat the State!, which he helped edit for nearly two decades (1996-2014). Currently he writes locally for the South Seattle Emerald,Pacific Publishing newspapers, and for his own blog and social media. He still lives in Seattle.