Republicans won the north Whatcom County races for state Legislature on Tuesday, Nov. 4, in the most straightforward way possible: They showed up to vote.
The money on both sides was roughly the same, but other forces probably induced more Republican voters to cast their ballots: the national unpopularity of Democrats, and the bitter aftertaste for conservatives of the 2013 County Council elections.
With only a few hundred ballots left to count on Thursday, Nov. 6, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, led challenger Seth Fleetwood, a Democrat, 59 percent to 41 percent. In one of two House races, Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, led Democrat Joy Monjure 58 percent to 42 percent.
The Democrat who fared best in the 42nd Legislative District was Satpal Sidhu, in a race without an incumbent. He had 44 percent of the vote to Republican Luanne Van Werven’s 56 percent.
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The district leans conservative. It includes north Bellingham, the county’s small cities and most of its rural and farm lands.
Based on results from the Aug. 5 primary, the Democrats were 14-percentage-point underdogs in their bid to take seats from the Republicans in November. In each of the three primaries, Republicans got 57 percent of the vote. Democrats got the other 43 percent, or even less in Sidhu’s case. (He was in a four-way primary.)
Immediately after the primary, Democrats were optimistic. Primary voters are older and more conservative, they said, so the general election results will be more favorable. Turnout in Whatcom County was 34 percent in the primary. That number should double in the general election, creating a lot of room to turn the results around, Democrats maintained.
Voter turnout countywide for the general election appeared to be about 59 percent.
Lisa McShane, who helped organize the Democrats’ successful County Council campaign in 2013, said the vote can swing in Democrats’ favor by 5 to 8 percentage points between August and November. Instead, the general election swung even more in Republicans’ favor, by 2 to 4 points. Sidhu, a businessman who distanced himself from the party in public appearances, was the only Democrat who improved from the primary to the general election.
The chairmen of the two county party organizations said the same thing about the outcome.
“It wasn’t a good night for Democrats across the country,” said Mike Estes, chairman of the Whatcom Democrats. “The turnout just wasn’t there.”
County Republican Chairman Charlie Crabtree said on Thursday, Nov. 6, that he had looked at the precinct-by-precinct results.
“The Democrats didn’t show up,” Crabtree said. “It is a bit surprising to me.”
Turnout was 61 percent in the eight county precincts — all in Bellingham — that most favored Monjure (82 percent of those voters chose her). In the eight precincts most supportive of Buys (88 percent), turnout was 69 percent.
By one measure, Democrats and allies such as Washington Conservation Voters actually did a better job than Republicans at boosting the ballot count between the primary and the general elections. Turnout in the eight most liberal precincts increased 76 percent in the general election compared to the primary. In the eight most conservative precincts, turnout improved just 62 percent.
It wasn’t nearly enough. After all, even in the successful countywide campaign to elect four progressive County Council members in 2013, those candidates — Rud Browne, Barry Buchanan, Ken Mann and Carl Weimer — got only 46 percent of the vote in the 42nd District.
Estes points to the redrawing of the boundary between the 42nd and the more liberal 40th District to the south as a big reason why the 42nd is so hard to win. After the 2010 census, two predominantly Democratic precincts in Bellingham were moved from the 42nd to the 40th, Estes said.
“The redistricting in 2010 put the 42nd out of play in this election,” Estes said.
Directly or indirectly, Washington Conservation Voters backed Fleetwood for Senate with more than $336,000 in independent expenditures. Most of that money came from California billionaire Tom Steyer’s political action committee, which spent on candidates who would address climate change.
Campaign ads from Conservation Voters portrayed Fleetwood as the candidate who would do more to protect residents and the environment from the risks carried by crude-oil trains and coal trains. The organization hired canvassers to knock on 24,000 doors in the 42nd District — on top of the 40,000-plus residences canvassed by the Whatcom Democrats.
Conservation Voters President Shannon Murphy would not call the campaign a failure, despite the ballot results.
“This race was always about holding Senator Ericksen accountable for his actions,” Murphy said. While the senator claimed during the campaign to have supported the most stringent oil-train safety bill in the country, Murphy said he blocked the oil-train bill that had bipartisan support in the House and the backing of firefighters. Ericksen’s bill was supported by the oil and railroad industries, Murphy said.
“We see our job as making sure voters are made aware of Senator Ericksen’s record of putting polluters ahead of his constituents,” she said.
With redistricting, President Obama’s unpopularity and the perception among conservatives that Democrats want to take away industrial jobs at Cherry Point, messages such as those of the Conservation Voters don’t resonate with 42nd District voters, Crabtree said.
And when conservative voters saw that Steyer’s money was back in Bellingham — he had also indirectly supported the progressive County Council candidates — they weren’t going to sit this election out, Crabtree said.
“(Steyer) made his appearance last year, and we got outgunned financially,” Crabtree said. “In the north county, conservatives might have felt a bit disenfranchised by last year’s election.”