A decade ago, Republicans convened a meeting at a political conference in Ocean Shores, Grays Harbor County, to discuss what they dubbed “the Seattle problem.”
“James Carville famously coined the motto … ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ “ a GOP campaign consultant told the crowd. “Our problem is not King County. It’s Seattle, stupid. That’s all it is.”
The gist was that Seattle had become so left-wing that a decent goal for GOP candidates was to lose it by only 50 percentage points. But the suburbs were not like the activist city. Focus on moderate places like Bellevue, Federal Way or Redmond, the conference concluded, and Republicans can do just fine.
A precinct analysis of our latest election shows how seismically politics has shifted since then. In an election in which Republicans hoped people would recoil from Seattle, the suburbs instead ended up mimicking it.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray won Seattle by 88% to 11%, a 77-point margin (the other 1% were write-ins). For GOP candidate Tiffany Smiley to earn only 11% of the Seattle vote means she scarcely did any better than the most-loathed figure in Seattle in memory, Donald Trump, who in the 2020 election got 9% in the city.
But what ought to be setting off GOP sirens is that the supposedly more sober and cautious suburbs are becoming nearly as left-wing as the city.
Take Issaquah. It used to be known as “Swingtown, WA,” due to the way the town swiveled between Republicans and Democrats. At this newspaper we did reporting forays into Issaquah, the Highlands and Sammamish as the best places to find both R and D voters in roughly equal proportions.
But last week Sammamish voted for Patty Murray by 38 points. Issaquah backed Murray by 73% to 27% — so Swingtown has now gone blue by 46 points (about what the GOP was hoping to see in Seattle a decade ago).
Murray won Bellevue by 40 points, Kirkland by 44 and Redmond by a crushing 50 points, 75% to 25%. Redmond was represented by a Republican in the state Legislature as recently as five years ago.
Even in the south end and other points distant from Seattle, the GOP is reeling. Murray won both Federal Way and Auburn by about 60-40. Maple Valley was backing Murray 57% to 43%. North Bend and Snoqualmie went Democratic by nearly two to one. No Republicans won in legislative districts that are predominantly in the county.
Smiley did win Black Diamond and Enumclaw — the last red toeholds left in King.
These are all preliminary figures based on early precinct returns. (Final results won’t be released for a few more weeks.)
The problem for Republicans isn’t that this was an unusual setback. It’s that it’s the new normal. For four elections in a row now, the blue vote totals have soared in the ‘burbs — this latest one coming without Trump himself even on the ballot. It means the party’s desultory “MAGA” image around here is becoming baked in.
Some of the suburbs are starting to vote kind of Seattle-like even on hot-button urban issues, like crime.
Take the nonpartisan King County prosecutor’s race. It pitted a “get tough on crime” candidate, Jim Ferrell, endorsed by police unions, against a candidate offering a more nuanced approach, Leesa Manion. Manion campaigned heavily on ramping up alternative sentencing and court diversion programs — call that the Seattle style — while also saying more resources are needed for traditional law enforcement.
The “get tough” candidate lost. This was despite rising violent crime, and an onslaught of ads from the GOP and outside groups drawing attention to the crime issue. What’s most revealing though is where Ferrell lost.
He lost in Seattle, which might be expected. But he also lost in a host of suburbs, including cities such as Redmond, Issaquah and Renton, where the mayors had endorsed Ferrell on the grounds he would ratchet up what they view as increasingly lax criminal prosecution.
Some of these votes were not exactly close. Redmond chose the Seattle approach on crime by 16 points, 58% to 42%. Kirkland backed it by 10 points, and Issaquah by 8. Ferrell did win Federal Way, where he is mayor, along with some south-end cities such as Auburn and Kent.
Does this settle our go-hard or go-soft debate about crime? Probably not, but it may make the picture clearer.
Last year Seattle voters rejected two candidates who wanted to abolish policing. Now this year, voters countywide have said no to doubling down on the traditional cops-and-jail approach. What has emerged is a space in-between: Mend but don’t end standard policing, while also urging more social-service attention to drug problems and other misdemeanors in lieu of incarceration.
We’ll have to see whether that works. The point here is: It’s not solely a Seattle thing anymore. When you have Swingtown, WA, agreeing with Seattle that non-cop techniques may be the way to go for fighting many crimes, that’s the cover politicians need to at least give it a major try.
As for the future of our local politics, the GOP’s prospects seem dismal. As long as the national party continues its jihad against women’s reproductive rights, and Trump looms off to the east like a mushroom cloud, it’s hard to see how local Republicans will escape still more toxic fallout.
The bottom line is the GOP doesn’t just have a “Seattle problem” anymore. It has spread. The suburbs, which once may have formed a buffer of moderation around the city, are instead becoming the city.