Candidates backed by the Democrats won all four seats in a crucial Whatcom County Council election watched by the nation. As MSNBC host Rachel Maddow put it, the elections had "global implications" because of a coal-export terminal the council may vote on, years from now.
Did the Democrats sweep because they outspent the Republicans 2 to 1, or simply because they outmatched the Republicans in volunteer power?
Did the coal terminal proposed for Cherry Point spur voters who wanted to see environmentalists in office? Or is the tea party's brand passé?
All of these forces were in play, according to party leaders interviewed after a bitterly fought campaign to take control of the County Council.
Two progressive incumbents - Ken Mann and Carl Weimer - retained their seats. Weimer faced planning commissioner Michelle Luke for the second election in a row. Mann was challenged by Ben Elenbaas, a popular Lynden-area farmer known to many as "Farmer Ben."
Council Chairwoman Kathy Kershner and council member Bill Knutzen, whose victories in 2009 tipped the political balance on the council toward the conservative, lost re-election bids.
Rud Browne, known best for founding an environmentally friendly technology company, defeated Knutzen. Former Bellingham City Council member Barry Buchanan ousted Kershner.
Stories in the national media about Whatcom's election have focused on the coal terminal and all the money the four races attracted, more than $1 million in all.
Six-figure donors included the coal industry on one side and Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist labeled by the media as a liberal Koch brother, on the other.
The Democrats raised more than $180,000 to meet their own ambitious campaign goals. Of that, about $50,000 came late in the race, in response to the coal money, county Democratic Chairman Mike Estes said
The Whatcom Republicans raised more than $70,000 this year.
"It sounds like money talks," said Charlie Crabtree, the county Republicans' chairman, in an interview after the election but before the outcome was certain. "It may very well be the difference in what the Whatcom County Council is going to look like in the next years."
The Democrats spent $33,000 on a poll to find out which of some 15 to 20 messages resonated most with voters, said Alex Ramel, an organizer for Whatcom Wins, the Democrats' coordinated campaign for the council candidates.
The Republicans spent $10,000 on a get-out-the-vote effort that included a four-question survey.
"That kind of money we just could not match," Crabtree said.
The Whatcom Wins machine was highly efficient, doing a better job of churning out voters than the Democrats had in past odd-year elections.
The county Democrats had never run a coordinated campaign like this, said Lisa McShane, a Whatcom Wins organizer. Estes said it was modeled on a state-level party campaign during a presidential year.
"You don't see that very often" at a local level, Estes told hundreds of volunteers crowded into Whatcom Wins headquarters on election night.
The Democrats boasted more than 400 volunteers who knocked on 26,435 doors and made 47,006 phone calls, according to McShane. Party organizers had to turn volunteers away the day before Election Day because the phone banks were full, McShane said.
"We had more people. We had a better ground game," said McShane, who was explaining why the Democrats didn't win with money.
"And they didn't care about campaign money," added Estes, who joined McShane in a day-after-election interview.
The results on the ballot showed gains for progressives in most corners of the county. In Bellingham, the progressive vote for County Council was 70 percent, compared to 66 percent in 2009.
The progressive vote in the unincorporated county improved from 42 percent in 2009 to 46 percent. Ferndale and Blaine also became more progressive on the County Council vote.
Republicans gained ground in the combined votes from Lynden, Sumas, Everson and Nooksack. The GOP vote in those four cities went from 71 percent in 2009 to 75 percent this time.
Any of a number of influences could cause this. Those communities that increased their conservative vote are far from the rail lines that would carry coal trains to Cherry Point. Elenbaas apparently gave Republicans a hometown advantage, getting 79 percent of the Lynden vote, which was 11 points better than Mann's 2009 opponent.
McShane said that extremely conservative part of the county became more entrenched because the Democrats chose a message that would work well in a county where 55 percent of voters chose Barack Obama in 2012.
"We knew we needed to convey a partisan message to win, and I think you're seeing a partisan response," McShane said.
Crabtree had a different take on the northeast Whatcom results.
"Elenbaas and Knutzen resonated and responded to the concerns of the agricultural community," Crabtree said.
The Republicans counted more than 150 volunteers in this year's campaign. In their effort to get out the vote, they were able to reach out to 8,000 or 9,000 key voters "several times," Crabtree said.
"I've been heading up the grassroots for the Republicans for many years, and I can say this was an almost presidential year, volunteer-wise," he said. "We met all of our goals. ... We put out an effort that I cannot remember in a nonpartisan, off-year election."
The Republicans did not meet their goals in the election results, but they were not shut out completely. Republican-backed Port of Bellingham candidate Dan Robbins defeated Renata B. Kowalczyk for the District 1 seat.
Next year, Democrats say they want to build on the momentum and the organizational know-how gained in 2013 to go after the state Senate seat for north Whatcom currently held by Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.
"This was a shot across the bow," McShane said of this year's campaign. "Whatcom County citizens are no longer interested in tea party representation, and we're looking forward to what we can do next."
Independent campaigns spent $441,808 for the four Whatcom County races, compared to $6,723 when the same four seats were up for election in 2009. Here's a breakdown (does not include all party spending):
- Washington Conservation Voters, $279,281.
- Save Whatcom, $141,098.
- Whatcom County Republican Party, $12,394.
- Washington Association of Realtors, $6,667.
- Your Fellow Patriots, $2,368.
Spending for progressives: $280,947.
Spending for conservatives: $160,860.