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Washington State Politics

November 5, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Thanks to the Senate race between three-term Democratic incumbent Patty Murray and Republican challenger Dino Rossi, our state got a lot of attention this week. And thanks also to our vote-by-mail system, which ensures that vote counts drag on. The race was settled only yesterday afternoon, with Rossi conceding after 78% of the votes had been counted. The margin was only about 51 to 49 in Murray’s favor, but the margin was growing and evidently a demographic analysis made it clear that the race was all but settled.

Given how Democratic and liberal Washington State is perceived to be, it might seem surprising that the race was so close. But in fact Washington isn’t such a liberal Democratic state, as the map above might suggest, and as Jonathan Raban explained today in an excellent primer on Washington politics at the New York Review blog:

In the run-up to the election, I’ve seen Washington described by commentators as a blue state—“very blue,” “reliably blue,” “stark blue.” But it’s only by a series of electoral flukes in closely fought races that it has a Democratic governor (Christine Gregoire) and two Democratic senators (Murray and Maria Cantwell). Six of its nine members of Congress are—or were before the election—Democrats. These numbers mask a deep, and very nearly equal, tribal division between the rural and urban parts of the state.

Democrats inhabit the low shores of Puget Sound, mostly on its eastern side, in a ragged trail of port-cities that stretches from Bellingham, close to the Canadian border, through Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma, to Olympia, the state capital, at the southern end of the sound. In Seattle, our very liberal Democrat congressman, Jim McDermott, is being returned to D.C. for his twelfth term with a majority (so far) of 82 percent of the vote, which is a tad down from his 2008 figure. In fact, most of western Washington’s Democratic candidates for the House (four successful, one unsuccessful, and one yet to be decided) defended the administration’s record in their campaigns. But when you drive eastward over the Interstate 90 bridge that crosses the long and skinny Lake Washington, to Bellevue and beyond, you enter Republican territory, whose redness steadily deepens over the next three hundred miles to the Idaho border.

The north-south line of “the mountains,” meaning the Cascade Range, forty miles east of Seattle, is a rigid political frontier. On November 2, all twenty counties east of the mountains voted for Dino Rossi, while Patty Murray’s support was concentrated in the urban settlements on Puget Sound. As one crests Snoqualmie Pass on I-90, the whole character of Washington state changes before one’s eyes: abundant rainfall gives way to near-desert; ferns, salal, blackberry, and Douglas fir to sagebrush and stunted pinyon pine; high tech industries (Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon.com) to irrigated agriculture and cattle ranches. Median incomes drop, population density thins.

Another indication of the state’s not-so-liberal politics was the defeat by a 2-to-1 margin of Initiative 1098, which would have introduced an income tax for individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples earning more than $400,000, the revenue to go to education and social services.

It’s a complex state. But why would one expect otherwise?

Categories: Politics
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