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Midterm’s geographic divide renews interest in unlikely plan to split Washington in two

FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2017 file photo Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane, speaks at a gun-rights rally, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Shea is a leading proponent of creating a 51st state called Liberty, comprised of counties in eastern Washington.
FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2017 file photo Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane, speaks at a gun-rights rally, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Shea is a leading proponent of creating a 51st state called Liberty, comprised of counties in eastern Washington. AP file

Do you think eastern Washington should be its own state?

That’s what the Wenatchee World, a newspaper in central Washington, asked its readers the day after last month’s midterm election, posing the question and posting a depiction of the state split in half on Facebook.

The post garnered nearly 800 reactions and more than 400 shares, with a flurry of comments from readers across the political spectrum. Many spoke derisively of the proposal.

“Yes everyone with a differing opinion should create their own state and we can have 100,000 states,” Dev Leigh wrote sarcastically. “What a pu(e)rile question.”

But the question resonated with others, such as Rachelle McCann, who wrote that she was “feeling like my vote doesn’t even matter in this state. We will never defeat liberal King County.”

The notion of splitting Washington state in two has been around for decades. But the idea has attracted renewed attention since the election, when the state once again split ideologically along geographic and urban-rural lines.

Voters in much of rural eastern and southwest Washington skewed Republican in Senate and House races, and took the more conservative position on the state’s initiatives as well.

In the more urban northwest, which includes population centers like Seattle and Tacoma, voters overwhelmingly backed Democratic candidates and liberal initiatives.

Scott Came Courtesy to McClatchy

Scott Came Courtesy to McClatchy

In Matt Shea’s world, eastern Washington gun owners wouldn’t have to abide by the new statewide gun restrictions passed with the support of Seattle-area liberals. For years, Spokane Valley’s controversial representative to the state legislature has introduced bills that would create the 51st U.S. state – Liberty.

Liberty is the dream of Washington’s far-right: a libertarian bastion where residents don’t have to worry about liberal West Coast voters enacting tougher gun control laws or raising taxes. The plan would split Washington roughly along the Cascade mountain range.

“Currently, we are already two states on virtually every major issue of the day, from water, guns and wolves to taxes, regulations and life,” Liberty’s website states, noting that the state draft constitution is almost finished and the plan will enter “stage two” in January 2019. “When both sides are unsatisfied with their representation, some things are just better apart.”

Shea is a conservative firebrand who supported cattle rancher Cliven Bundy’s armed standoff with federal agents, believes Muslims and the far-left are creating “counter-states” within the U.S. and once compared Planned Parenthood to a Nazi nicknamed the Doctor of Death for the medical experiments he performed at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Despite his extreme views, Shea recently won re-election to a fifth term in the state House of Representatives, where he was the Republican caucus chair – until recently. In October, he admitted to writing a leaked document called the “Biblical Basis for War,” which advocates for the killing of males who do not follow biblical law. Shea was left off the list for Republican leadership elections earlier this month.

“I have consistently and unequivocally condemned racism, anti-Semitism and white nationalism and do so again,” Shea tweeted in response to the ensuing national uproar, according to The Associated Press.

Shea did not respond to a request for comment. He has called journalists “dirty, godless, hateful people.”

His role “sort of legitimizes what we would otherwise call these hair-brained ideas,” said Cornell Clayton, a government professor and director of the Foley Institute of Public Policy at Washington State University. “People have to consider it more seriously.”

Clayton said there is a “zero percent possibility” that Liberty will ever be a reality. But he’s not sure that’s the point.

“I wonder myself whether they’re serious about it, or whether or not they’re using this as more a symbolic gesture to rally people behind their ideas,” Clayton said.

Clayton doesn’t think any Seattle-area progressives or liberals have seriously considered the proposal, but it might actually be more appealing to them, he said.

“From their perspective, the eastern side of the state is a financial drag. The tax situation is that the western part of the state subsidizes the eastern part of the state,” he said. “There should be more incentive for them to want to see some kind of devolution or separation.”

The Elway Poll, a nonpartisan analysis of Washington public opinion, wrote last year that the 2016 election “tore a hole” in the Cascade Curtain idea, which holds that the state is “Republican on the dry side of the Cascade range, Democratic on the wet side.” Several coastal counties voted for President Donald Trump, prompting Elway to conduct polling that concluded the state’s divide is more urban vs. rural rather than east vs. west.

Elway found that 67 percent of large city voters said controlling gun violence was more important than gun owners’ rights, while 56 percent of rural voters prioritized gun owners’ rights. Smaller cities and towns were split on the issue.

Crunching the numbers from the 2018 midterm reveals a similar trend.

Scott Came Courtesy to McClatchy

Scott Came Courtesy to McClatchy

Scott Came Courtesy to McClatchy

More urban counties in eastern Washington like Spokane and Walla Walla – which include the 217,000-person city of Spokane, Washington State University and Whitman College between them – were nearly evenly split the gun control initiative. Whitman County also backed Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, while Spokane chose Republican challenger Susan Hutchison by a slim margin.

In the west, coastal counties Grays Harbor, Pacific and Wahkiakum leaned conservative. All three opposed imposing restrictions on gun purchases, and Pacific was the only one of the three to pick Cantwell – by fewer than 200 votes.

But even though the state is deeply polarized, Clayton said people are still able to find a way to get along.

“I still think there’s a strong pragmatic culture in the state of Washington to try to find solutions,” he said. “You do have the extreme elements in both parties, but in the past, the moderate wings of both parties have been dominant, and I think that’s still the case. And I think that’s generally reflective of the populous.”

Scott Came created maps for this story. His name was corrected Dec. 3, 2018.

The location of Whitman College was corrected Dec. 3, 2018.