A theme in national analysis of Tuesday’s primary results was the ugly results for Republicans in Washington state, including in two districts, WA03 and WA05, not previously on many target district radar screens. That analysis was both right and wrong, and this former Washington politico will tell you why.
- The trending media analysis was correct that overall results in Washington state are quite troubling for Republicans.
- The freshly vulnerable Evergreen State Congressional seats now dancing in the eager eyes of Democratic activists will be tougher to seize than many of them may think, with one big wildcard: that Republicans fight like hell for those seats.
Perhaps you’re thinking, why should I care about primary results in the far northwest corner of the continental United States?
Here’s why: Washington state was the epicenter of the 1994 Republican Revolution, with the Congressional delegation flipping from 8-1 Democrat to 6-3 Republican, including the defeat of then Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley. Likewise, Washington state legislative elections were the crest of the wave in 2006 as the GOP sustained brutal losses nationwide…with WA Republicans losing 23% of their State Senate seats and 20% of their State House seats.
But forget my word, take that of respected national elections analyst Sean Trende, who argues the combination of the August primary date and a jungle primary format in WA creates a largely predictable measure of turnout and enthusiasm for the general election nationally.
Sean is correct, but to build on his analysis in the now competitive House districts – 3, 5, and 8 – in WA, I analyzed what happened between the primary and general elections in those districts specifically in years of strong Democratic performance: 2006, 2008, and 2012.* Here's what I found in analyzing data at the Washington Secretary of State's website:
WA03 – then Democratic Congressman Brian Baird won re-election against a weak opponent in a swing/lean D district. Democratic vote totals:
- Primary: 60.43%
- General: 63.12%
- Change: +2.69%
WA05 – then freshman Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers runs her first re-election campaign in what some thought could be a competitive race. Democratic vote totals:
- Primary: 40.77%
- General: 43.6%
- Change: +2.83
WA08 – then freshman Republican Congressman Dave Reichert wins re-election in a highly competitive swing district in the Seattle media market. Democratic vote totals:
- Primary: 51.01%
- General: 48.54%
- Change: -2.47%
Analysis: Democratic share of the vote went up nearly 3% in between the primary and general in non-competitive races but shrunk in the highly competitive race where both sides poured resources into the contest.
WA03 – Baird again wins in a swing/lean D district with token Republican opposition. Democratic vote totals:
- Primary: 63.54%
- General: 64.01%
- Change: +0.47%
WA05 – McMorris Rodgers runs for re-election against a non-competitive candidate. Democratic vote totals:
- Primary: 31.41%
- General: 34.72%
- Change: +3.31%
WA08 – Reichert wins re-election, despite the Obama wave, again in a highly competitive race. Democratic vote totals:
- Primary: 49.07% (a plurality over Reichert’s 48.54%)
- General: 47.22%
- Change: -1.85%
Analysis: Similar to 2006, Democratic vote percentages rose between the primary and the general in non-competitive races, but shrank in a highly competitive, expensive race.
WA03 – freshman Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler runs for re-election in her updated, now “lean R” district against a weak opponent. Democratic vote totals:
- Primary: 37.64%
- General: 39.62%
- Change: + 1.98%
WA05 – McMorris Rodgers runs for re-election easily in her updated, now less conservative but still firmly Republican district. Democratic vote totals:
- Primary: 33.12%
- General: 38.08%
- Change: +4.96%
WA08 – Reichert runs for re-election in his updated, now “lean R” district against an non-competitive opponent. Democratic vote totals:
- Primary: 33.81%
- General: 40.35%
- Change: + 6.54%
Analysis: Similar to 2006 and 2008, Democratic vote percentages rose from the primary to general in non-competitive races, sometimes substantially.
Now, let’s look at the Primary results from this past Tuesday. These results are as of the latest totals at end of day August 8th, thus subject to some change as final mail-in ballots are counted in the coming days:
WA08 – Dino Rossi, he of state legislative success and multiple statewide electoral failures is running following Reichert’s retirement in a now potentially swing district that voted for Hillary Clinton. He faced multiple competing Democrats, as well as several Republicans and 3rd party candidates, in the jungle primary where the top 2 vote-getters of any party advance.
- Democratic candidate total: 50.49% (leading Democrat with 19.07%)
- Republican candidate total: 46.62% (Rossi with 42.71%)
- 3rd party candidate total: 2.88%
WA03 – Herrera Beutler is running for re-election against multiple Republican and Democratic filers.
- Democratic candidate total: 49.55% (leading Democrat with 35.88%)
- Republican candidate total: 50.4% (Herrera Beutler with 41.61%)
- No 3rd party candidates
WA05 - McMorris Rodgers is running for re-election against former Spokane-area State Senator and former Washington State University Spokane campus Chancellor Lisa Brown in a potentially competitive race. Primary results:
- Democratic candidate total: 46.82% (Lisa Brown is the only Democratic candidate)
- Republican candidate total: 53.19% (McMorris Rodgers with 47.81%).
- No 3rd party candidates
Analysis: Rossi is in a real fight, aided somewhat by the fact none of his Democratic opponents separated themselves from the pack. Herrera Beutler faces her toughest re-elect, but can win with an energetic, effective campaign…just like Dave Reichert’s toughest races. McMorris Rodgers may be somewhat safer than that, but will still also have her toughest re-election race. While Lisa Brown is a strong candidate, the House’s 4th ranking Republican facing a tough re-elect in a firmly Republican district says a great deal about the national environment in the era of Trump.
Bonus analysis: Beyond these Congressional data points, I assess as more troublesome for Republicans the results in several key WA legislative districts (again as of vote totals on the evening of August 8) that have historically favored the GOP:
- In LD05, comprised of suburbs and exurbs east of the Seattle-Bellevue metro area, two incumbent Republican Representatives are losing functional head-to-head primaries against their Democratic challengers by roughly 7% each.
- In LD42, a largely suburban-to-rural district stretching north and east of Bellingham, along the Canadian border, all three Republican incumbents are trailing Democratic challengers, by margins ranging from 1-9%.
- In LD06, a mostly suburban and exurban district near Spokane, all three Republican candidates are trailing their Democratic opponents in seats currently held by Republicans, by margins ranging from 1-7%
There are similar results in many Washington legislative districts, indicating Republicans are getting pummeled down the ballot in this Trump-infused environment, absent intense, successful, localized campaigns to stem the tide.
Takeaways from all this data in WA:
- In noncompetitive Congressional races, Democratic percentages do rise between the primary and general. Maybe this will be moderated by general Democratic enthusiasm driving strong primary turnout, but I wouldn't bet against equally boisterous Democratic turnout in November.
- The consistent takeaway from the Democratic-friendly 2006, 2008, and 2012 cycles is the only way to reverse the rise of Democratic vote percentages from the primary to the general is to run a highly competitive, well-funded campaign. Otherwise, if you're a Republican behind after the primary, you're going down.
- Jaime Herrera Beutler, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Dino Rossi will run competitive, well-funded campaigns, supported by outside groups, in WA03, WA05, and WA08 respectively.
Here’s the huge problem. That shouldn’t be happening in two of those three districts.
WA08 has a Cook Political Report PVI of "Even." Reichert won re-election in 2016 handily but Clinton simultaneously won it by 3 in 2016. That district should be a fight, especially with Reichert’s retirement. And it will be.
But, WA03 has a PVI of R+4 and Trump won it by almost 8 points. WA05 has a PVI of R+8 Trump won it by 13 points! These districts shouldn’t be in play…
...except in the case of a rising Democratic wave.
Which is what is upon us.
I think based on their strength as candidates and incumbents Herrera Beutler and McMorris Rodgers will win (I’d take a less optimistic view if either were the traditional Republican stereotype, older, white men, especially female-candidate friendly WA). But, it will be uncomfortably close compared to their recent races, taking up resources that could otherwise be spared for other, more traditionally competitive races nationally.
And if all that’s the case in lean-to-strong R districts that went decisively for Trump, what’s happening in districts where Republicans are fighting to retain seats in swing or otherwise lean D districts that didn't support Trump so strongly?
They’re mostly getting overwhelmed by a wave. That’s what’s happening.
I don’t think we should be talking about if Democrats will take the House in November. They likely will. The sum of what we've seen in 2018 is pretty clear on this score. The more relevant question is will Democrats actually make Nancy Pelosi Speaker again.
*Two notes on this analysis:
1) The WA district maps changed in 2010, with Districts 3 and 8 moving from “swing” to “lean R” while District 5 became somewhat less “safe R.” But, the purpose of this discussion is looking at overall trends in primary and general election results, not attempting to extrapolate district results year over year.
2) For the purpose of calculating partisan vote totals in the jungle primary where candidates self-identify their party preference, I count anyone listed as “prefers Democrat party” or any reasonable variation, or on the flip side “prefers” Republican party” or any reasonable variation, in those respective party camps. Example: in WA08 this year, Dino Rossi filed as “Prefers GOP Party” (don’t get me started on that one), 2 candidates as “Prefers Republican Party,” 4 candidates filed as “Prefers Democratic Party,” and 5 candidates filed under various other banners. I count the first 3 candidates in assessing Republican percentages, the next 4 candidates in assessing Democrats, and leave the rest as 3rd party. Likewise, in WA05 a fellow filed as “Prefers Trump Populist Party," self-identifies as a “conservative populist Republican,” and is all-in on Trump. I’m counting his percentage as "Republican'" with Cathy McMorris Rodgers and the other two Republicans.