There is bad news, some good news, and a potential strategy in Washington for the GOP to regain some semblance of normalcy. The bad news is recent records show that 41% of voters now identify as Democrats statewide. That number is high, but not a record in the state. That occurred in 2008 amongst Obama fever. Republican party affiliation was 35% about 20 years ago but dropped to 30% by 2012 and 25% now. The current gap is wider today than it was in 2018. This is a generational move as about 25% of the electorate was not even born the last time Washington had a Republican governor.
As recently as 2000, Washington was a swing state which prided itself on independent voters who would often split their ticket. From 1980 to 1990, Republicans won 58% of statewide races. Since 1992, Democrats have taken 77% of those races. And if you add up all the votes since 1992, Democrats have held a 10-point advantage.
Independents outnumber Democrats in non-presidential election years. That changes to a Democrat advantage in presidential election years when their turnout outpaces that of independents. In the 2000 election, Republicans had a 1-point advantage on Democrats, but by 2004 the numbers had flipped.
Some go back even further and now blame the rightward shift of the state GOP in 1988. In that year, the state sent a delegation to the national convention that supported Pat Robertson over Reagan’s vice-president- George H.W. Bush. After four straight elections of voting for the Republican for President, Washington gave its votes to Dukakis. Meanwhile, since 2000, Washington has 1 million more voters registered. About 20% of voters in 2019 were not eligible to vote in 2008.
Most of these new voters are located in the Puget Sound region where 54% of all registered voters in Washington live. This is the base of power for Democrats in the state and from where their majorities in the state government originate.
While it is easy to blame (for some) Trump for the GOP’s misfortunes in Washington, the decline started way before Trump’s arrival on the scene. It is true that the makeup of the new electorate, especially in the Seattle area, has long held liberal or libertarian beliefs when it comes to social issues and immigration. Perhaps the one knock against Trump in Washington is the fact that the state is the one most dependent in the nation on international trade. The on-going trade battle with China and others should, of course, be resolved. However, even if it was tomorrow, that liberal streak of the new breed of voters will ignore a US trade deal victory and vote for a Democrat.
Thus, Trump- despite what he says and whether he transforms into a Kasichite overnight- would never win the state’s electoral votes. Again, before there was Trump, the GOP delegation to DC had a Democrat majority, 8-1. In 1994, that flipped to 7-2 in favor of the GOP, but by 1998 it flipped back to a 5-4 Democrat majority.
The explanation is that the state GOP is adrift. Both the activists and the elites have lost control of the party creating a form of political schizophrenia. In 2016, as noticed by many in the state, at county level gatherings, most of the support was for either Rubio or Cruz. Trump support was almost non-existent. If it wasn’t Rubio or Cruz, it was Kasich. Trump was an afterthought. Hence, it really does not matter how Trump performs in Washington since the state party is either non-committal, or against him.
To illustrate what a losing proposition this is, in 2016 Steve Litzow was a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage Republican state senator from Mercer. He supported raising taxes to increase education spending. On Facebook, he referred to Trump as a “fascist.” He got creamed by a Democrat who happened to be a political novice in their first run for any elected office. Running away from Trump does not pay dividends for a Republican in Washington. A facade of “moderation” is a losing strategy.
So what is the good news and what is a strategy the GOP can use in the state? First, the GOP should just ignore Seattle; it is a lost cause. On issues like abortion, gay marriage and pot, the electorate tilts left. On fiscal issues like taxes, higher energy costs, and government regulation the electorate tilts right. Even on issues like crime and preferences in college admissions, the electorate tilts to the right. Unfortunately, the Democrat majorities in Olympia drown out the issues and proposals to problems that actually appeal to the electorate.
For example, when I-200 was first introduced by Republican state representative Scott Smith from Pierce county which would end race-based affirmative action, it was buried in a house committee and never came up for a vote by the full state house. Despite heavy spending by liberal special interest groups to keep these programs, when the issue appeared on the state ballot as a referendum initiative, it won with 59% of the vote.
The calculations are rather simple. If you can pick an issue that 80% of Republicans can rally around, 60% of independents and perhaps 25% of Democrats, you are pretty much home free. Given the state’s rules on ballot initiatives, by-passing the Democrat-led legislature in Olympia and taking your case directly to voters could pay dividends. Further, good policy is good politics. You force your opposition to take a stand on the initiative. If Democrats in swing districts oppose a sound proposal, they risk alienating voters and leave them vulnerable to a general election defeat. If they support the measure, then they draw the ire of the loony progressives who then mount a primary challenge. Through bypassing the Democrat majorities and Democrat governor in Olympia, you play offense, not compromise and capitulation.
The first thing is to determine a sound conservative policy that voters care about. Second, find the volunteers to get the initiative on the ballot. Third, stick to a coherent message and be relentless. For example, suppose one wants to get an initiative banning sanctuary cities in the state. Hopefully, at least 80% of Republicans are behind it. There may even be 25% of Democrats. The focus of education and messaging has to be on getting 60% of independents to get on board.
There is another area where Republicans can make some inroads in the state. The primary concern of suburban Washington voters is education. The last Washington state budget that devoted 50% of state revenue to education funding occurred under the last Republican governor- John Spellman- who was elected in 1980. Ever since then, the mantra among state Republicans has been: “We are going to get back to 50% for education.” How has that worked out? This oddly occurred at a time when we saw an increase in support among many voters for vouchers and charter schools. Yet, Republicans running for office in the Seattle and Tacoma suburbs ignored the ideas of the conservative activists and concentrated solely on increased funding for public schools through their 50% mantra.
Perhaps the state GOP had to maintain some unsteady truce between the rural wheat farms and the suburban cul-de-sacs. But that unsteady truce- more commonly known as “moderation-” failed to translate into electoral success and without electoral success there is no policy success.
One thing Republicans in Washington have going for them is that the Democrats in Olympia are acting less like a legislature and more like a Politburo. The question is how far left they can go before alienating the voters. With a state GOP hell-bent on the losing strategy of moderation on many issues, the Democrats in Olympia may have nothing to fear.
Before Alaska and Hawaii were admitted into the Union, there was a saying among some people in Washington: “The United States is made up of 47 states and the Little Soviet of Washington.” Democrats in Olympia are not even shy about socialism/communism anymore because the GOP has thrown in the towel. There is no compromising with a commie.
Next: Alaska and Hawaii (It’s more interesting than one would think)