Washington state is growing, as evidenced by the fact that we'll be receiving a new Congressional district in 2012. And while conventional wisdom holds that a population boom in the "Soviet of Washington" is a boon for Democrats, a closer examination of the actual numbers might prove different.
Secretary of State Sam Reed's office has a handy, easily grokked, color-coded map showing population differentials for each of the state's 49 legislative districts. Since the population has grown by 800,000 residents, from 5.9 million in 2000 to 6.7 million in 2010, the ideal size of each legislative district should be around 136,000.
Four of the top five and seven of the ten fastest-growing districts are safe Republican seats. On the flip side, six of the slowest-growing districts are Democratic strongholds. The difference in numbers is akin to eliminating a safe Democrat district in Seattle and replacing it with a Republican one.
The four of the top five gainers are all Republican districts. The 2nd Legislative District in south Pierce County has been second to none when it comes to adding new residents, with a differential of +28,777. The 18th in Clark/Cowlitz County is +25,406. The 5th in East King County is +22,924, and the 16th in Walla Walla and Benton County is +16,043.
Fourth and sixth on the list are the 44th (Snohomish) +16,059 and 17th (Clark County) 14,364 with a bipartisan mixture of state representatives and senators. Rounding out the top 10 are the 39th, 8th, 1st and 4th. Here, only the 1st (Snohomish/King County) can rightly be considered anywhere near safe Democrat seats.
Meanwhile, the biggest losers are the 3rd Legislative District (Spokane), at -15,851; the 33rd (King) at - 12,604; 32nd (King) at - 11,872; 19th (Grays Harbor/Pacific) at -11,488; the 28th (Pierce) at -11,468; and the 46th (King) at -11,159, safe Democrat districts all.
Over the past decade, Democrats have been making political gains in the suburbs, taking over what were safe Republican seats in Bellevue (48th LD), Redmond (45th), and Auburn (47th), for example. These gains created Democratic supermajorities in Olympia, and the trend was thought to be irreversible by some political wonks.
How the 5th, 2nd, and 18th districts are subdivided will be the fulcrum which determines how political power will be reapportioned in two years. Their growth has been fueled in part by residents escaping Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland. Whether this is due to quality of life, more affordable housing, or political differences can be debated. What is clear is that this shift in demographics has created conservative super-districts that will have to be pared down to size.
Given their geographic placement, it's likely that voters in the three districts will continue to support Republican candidates, but you'll see a political-spectrum shift from blue to purple and purple to red in neighboring swing and Democrat districts. Districts that were thought to be swing or even mildly safe for Democrats will have an influx of Republican precincts attached to them.
Rural King County GOP types in the 5th can expect to be placed in Eastside swing districts in the 45th, 48th, 47th, and 41st. At the same time, Democratic-leaning precincts will have to be shifted west to fill population gaps in Seattle.
Although it's impossible to predict what this shift will mean exactly in 2012, a look at some of the tighter races in 2010 can be revealing. Eastside Democrats Rodney Tom and Ross Hunter in the 48th and Roger Goodman in the 45th would have probably lost their close races with a predicted influx of 5th District Republicans.
Instead of winning their races by a couple of percentage points, Pierce County Democrats Troy Kelley and Tami Green in the 28th (Dupont) would have probably lost by the same percentage with additional voters from the 2nd District being added . And Republican Hans Zeiger in Puyallup's 25th might have won without going to a recount. Similar Democratic victories by Tim Probst in the 17th (Clark County), Brian Blake in the 19th (Grays Harbor), Hans Dunshee and Steve Hobbs in the 44th (Snohomish), and even Luis Moscoso in the 1st (Snohomish/King) could have had different outcomes depending on where boundary lines shift.
Washington's nonpartisan redistricting commission is scheduled to convene this month to begin redrawing congressional and legislative districts.