Brand new party

THIS YEAR'S ELECTION-NIGHT hot spot was the fourth floor of the Westin Hotel, where a ballroom full of Democrats awaited the arrival of a victorious Patty Murray.

Nursing their $4 Cokes and hovering around a buffet table containing various permutations of chips and dip, the Democratic faithful celebrated the party's retaking of the state Senate and loudly cheered Murray and a host of party leaders during their turns at the podium.

Nationally, the Democrats won big by winning small. Although the election didn't change the numbers in the US Senate and saw the Democrats pick up just five House seats, this was the first time since 1934 that the incumbent president's party actually gained seats in Congress.

In Washington state, the Democrats just plain won big, sweeping the key races needed to take control of the state Senate and earning a narrow majority in the House—a result that is expected to make state Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43rd) the first Speaker of the House from Seattle in more than three decades.

Seattle election-party hoppers needed running shoes, as early celebrations were the theme for the night. Murray finished the evening with the same 58 percent of the vote she started with, and the medical marijuana initiative (I-692) was up by 10 points early. Democrats also took—and kept—leads in the state's two close US House races: Jay Inslee won in the 1st District; Brian Baird in southwest Washington's 3rd.

The scarce Republican wins were equally emphatic; anti-affirmative-action Initiative 200 and the Republican-backed transportation bond issue, Referendum 49, both led by 20 points early and won by slightly smaller margins. (On the other hand, I-694—the partial-birth abortion ban—lost by 16 points.)

How'd the Dems do it? It appears that an election that spurred unprecedented levels of television advertising was won with the ground game. Democrats and their allies—especially organized labor—sunk their resources into a get-out-the-vote drive. "The Democrats, for the first time, had what I would call a very grown-up, coordinated campaign," says Seattle political consultant Cathy Allen.

POST-ELECTION ANALYSIS stressed the word "moderation" to sum up the election—although a better word might be "dull." With the national economy doing well, the budget more or less balanced, and Republican congressional leaders at least as unpopular as President Bill Clinton, political operatives faced what US Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) characterized as "an issueless race." So the two parties ran with traditional themes ("Those Democrats just want to raise taxes"; "Those Republicans pretend to be your friends, but they're really out to help rich people"). They poured money into television ads. They commissioned numerous polls. The wallets of political consultants grew fatter. Then the voters returned fire with a few strong statements of their own, to wit:

* Abortion is dead as a statewide issue. Washington voters legalized abortion in 1970, upheld abortion funding for low-income women in 1984, and brought state laws into line with the federal Roe v. Wade decision in 1991. But the last two wins were by small margins; in notable contrast, 57 percent of state voters opposed I-694. "I think [abortion] is pretty much a settled issue in this state," says Marilyn Knight, press coordinator for the No on 694 campaign. The Republicans' loss of the state Senate should also cool efforts to erode abortion rights through new restrictions. Even pro-life Republican consultant Brett Bader says, "For those who have been telling us we have to lead with that issue, they're dead wrong."

*State voters don't see racial preferences as a right. Painful as this message was to liberal King County (which rejected I-200 by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin), the state electorate enthusiastically embraced the anti-affirmative-action initiative. A last-minute swing against 200 detected by pollsters failed to materialize at the ballot box. "Affirmative action is one of those things that people keep very close to their vest how they feel," says Seattle City Council member Nick Licata. "In the privacy of the voting booth, I think a lot of true feelings came out. Which is a sad commentary, because it shows how deep the racial divisions are in this state." Bader says the numbers were close at various points in the campaign, but I-200's television spots reversed the trend, and the large Democratic turnout actually boosted the initiative's winning margin.

*The Republican Party lacks candidates of statewide stature. Linda Smith drew just 42 percent at the top of the Republican ticket, roughly what fellow Christian conservative Ellen Craswell managed in the 1996 governor's race. "In the last two years, the Republican Party managed to nominate two women for statewide office who scare women voters to death—and that's just ludicrous," says Bader. In King County, which has a fairly close balance between Republicans and Democrats, Smith got a stunningly low 31 percent. The key for Republicans is to get their two most popular US House reps, Bellevue's Jennifer Dunn and Spokane's George Nethercutt, to consider statewide runs. Bader puts legislator and party chair Dale Foreman at that same level, but admits, "We don't have a deep bench beyond that."

*Seattle voters are willing to raise their property taxes for essential services. The library bond issue's astounding 72 percent approval rate echoed the similar margin last year for the Seattle Schools operating levy and a companion technology proposal. Supporters point to the lengthy public process used in drafting the library plan. "I think the victory is largely due to [new city librarian] Deborah Jacobs," says Licata. "She listened and acted, and that's not that common for public officials."

The group that most needs to catch the moderation theme is the state GOP. Perhaps the lesson of Craswell and Smith will convince state Republicans to unite behind moderate primary candidates. "Linda Smith did worse than Ellen Craswell against a weaker opponent in a stronger year," says Bader. "We cannot expect our candidates to run 20 points ahead of the top of the ticket to win."

Despite depressed numbers throughout the region, the Republicans only lost a pair of Republican legislative seats on the Eastside, and those belonged to two of their most right-wing officeholders: Mike Sherstad (1st District) and Bill Backlund (45th District). Although Democrats see this as a positive development, nobody thinks the Republicans' "Fortress Eastside" will be seriously breached anytime soon. Both losers were mediocre legislators with strong opposition, and the 1st has become a legitimate swing district, capable of electing candidates from either party.

Seattle liberals enraged by the Democratic Party's journey to the middle of the political road better get used to the trend. Allen says the party victory "was led by [Gov.] Gary Locke and his new definition of Democrat. We stole that big tent that the Republicans are always talking about."

And while Locke and the Democrats are tiptoeing around the issue of their new, majority-party legislative program (the governor has already announced that he does not plan to seek a gas tax increase next session), the faithful don't expect the party to squander its dominant status. Licata wants to see the city of Seattle put new emphasis on its legislative wish list. "If there's ever a chance to get urban-friendly legislation passed," he says, "it's going to be now."

 
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