Seattle pollster Stuart Elway, who has been taking our state’s political temperature for decades, noticed something a little unusual when compiling his latest opinion poll.
Shortly after, a Republican surprisingly won the race for Seattle City Attorney — where we hadn’t elected someone turning red in 30 years.
Elway’s statewide poll, which he now runs for the Crosscut news site, showed a sudden and marked increase in the number of voters who were ready, when he called them, to say “Yes, I am a Republican”.
“It’s as big a leap in party identification for a party as we’ve seen in the 30 years I’ve done these surveys,” Elway told me.
The Republicans could hardly go any lower. As documented in this space many times, the Donald Trump years have completely torn the party down here.
Republican officials have all but disappeared in King County. They were wiped out in most local suburbs. Washington was kind of a purplish-blue state when Trump stepped off the escalator in 2015. (Republicans controlled our state Senate, for example.) But the moment he left the rubble-filled stage there’s a year, Republicans here had lost five state Senate seats and control of that body, as well as seven seats in the state House (where they now trail 58 to 41). They had also lost a seat in Congress, and today there are no statewide officeholders left on the West Coast of the contiguous 48.
Washington state voters willing to identify as Republicans hit an all-time high last year, at just 18%, down from the more typical mid-30s, according to Elway’s poll. This is heading to a third-party territory.
But Trump is gone (for now anyway). The latest poll, released this month, shows Republicans jumped 11 points to 29%. That still trails the Democrats, but only by seven points instead of more than 20 a few years ago.
Elway said he was unsure of the exact reasons for the revival.
“Joe Biden is hitting a new low every week, and Democrats are in a circular firing squad again and again,” Elway said. “So that probably has a lot to do with it – there’s widespread disappointment on the national stage.”
Add in the omicron gloom, inflation and voters’ natural inclination to favor the out-of-power party in off-year elections, and you might have something of a red wave, Elway said.
It’s not just the national scene. Rep. JT Wilcox, R-Yelm, who leads Republicans in the State House and is in his sixth term, said he’s rarely seen Democrats in Olympia so bewildered.
“They were always very disciplined in how they did things, especially under (former State House) Speaker Frank Chopp,” Wilcox said. “But right now they’re on the defensive and backtracking on a number of things.”
It’s true. Democrats are using a lot of oxygen this year to backtrack to undo, pause or fix some high-profile reforms they passed in recent years. One is a long-term care program that was botched during last fall’s rollout, and another is about some policing bills passed last spring that proved confusing and unworkable in the streets.
They’ve also created unnecessary controversy, such as the now-passed bill to promote racial equity by reducing penalties for drive-by shootings. Last week, I wrote about an indirect effort to reduce in-person teaching time in schools, at the same time as pandemic-weary parents are clamoring for the exact opposite. A Democratic senator emailed me later to say that the hearing on that bill was a direct and “painful” mistake.
I have a theory about all this: Democrats are lost without Donald Trump.
He was the Death Star around which they could organize their fiery resistance. Without it, they wander. Nationally, they are in a leaderless fight between party factions, with Seattle Rep. Pramila Jayapal storming the left and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin cowering in the center.
Manchin won this final round without a contest. (A conservative magazine dubbed Jayapal the “political loser of the year — everything she does spells disaster for the Democrats.”)
I don’t know about that – there’s still time for them to compromise and adopt something. But what I mean is, it never occurred to Jayapal and Manchin to face off when they had Trump.
The same goes in reverse with the increase in the number of local voters who re-identify as Republicans. That’s because Trump is gone (again – for now). It was so toxic and polarizing that many moderate or right-wingers went into hiding, and now it’s safer to come out of that closet. Even in Seattle, apparently.
Trump’s absence therefore revives Republicans, who love him and want him back. And that kills Democrats, who hate him and hope he will forever remain a damaged asset.
Both parties should orbit something less toxic. Like agendas that they can actually pass.
Until then, it’s the weirdest moment in our tribal politics – that it’s the Democrats who, ironically, perhaps need the most for the unthinkable to happen. Which is a comeback from Donald Trump.