By Asa Kowals-Rose
With the presidential primary season wrapping up, voters around the country are turning their attention to the upcoming general election. Although most of the focus thus far has been on the on the presidential race, voters will also be electing a multitude of other political leaders in November, and these races could be every bit as impactful as the one to determine the next occupant of the White House. With the presidential primary season wrapping up, voters around the country are turning their attention to the upcoming general election. Although most of the focus thus far has been on the on the presidential race, voters will also be electing a multitude of other political leaders in November, and these races could be every bit as impactful as the one to determine the next occupant of the White House.
In Washington State, election season truly begins over the summer: the State will hold its primary election of August 2, three months before the general. Unlike the presidential primaries that have taken place around the country, Washington’s primary election isn’t about determining each party’s nominee for a given office, but instead serves to narrow each race down to two candidates, regardless of their party affiliation. This means that the primary could set up races between two members of the same party, or, in theory, races with two candidates from third parties. Using this “blanket primary” Washingtonians will weigh in on Congressional races, as well as races for U.S. Senator and Governor. Here’s a look at where these races stand now.
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
For the most part, Washington’s 2016 Congressional elections are not expected to be competitive. Nine of the state’s ten current U.S. Representatives are seeking re-election this year, and incumbent members of Congress are re-elected about 90 percent of the time. In many districts around the country, this is aided by gerrymandering—a process by which electoral districts are drawn in order to manipulate the outcomes of races in those districts.
While gerrymandering is often done for the benefit of a particular political party—to create as many reliably Republican or Democrat seats as possible in a given state, by grouping together areas with consistent support for either party into a district—Washington’s Congressional districts do not appear to reflect partisan manipulation. Since 2012 election, the first to utilize Washington’s current electoral map, the state’s Congressional delegation has comprised six Democrats and four Republicans, basically matching each party’s popular support.
Although this map doesn’t favor one party over another, it does seem to make each party’s seats more secure. In Washington’s 2014 Congressional elections, every incumbent representative was elected by a margin of at least nine points. Central Washington’s 4th District, left vacant by retiring Republican Congressman Doc Hastings, nonetheless remained comfortably in Republican hands; as a result to Washington’s blanket primary, Democrats were entirely shut out from that district’s general election.
This year’s Congressional elections appear to be headed for the same status-quo result as those held two years ago. Once again, all nine incumbents running for re-election are favored to retain their seats, and as in 2014, the only open race will take place in a highly partisan district. This time, it’s Washington’s 7th, which covers most of Seattle and its northern suburbs. So far, three high-profile Democrats have declared: State Senator Pramila Jayapal, State Representative Brady Walkinshaw, and King County Councilmember Joe McDermott; as well as Republican Craig Keller, who ran for the seat in 2014.
Though it’s unlikely that this race will change the partisan makeup of Congress—a Republican victory would be truly surprising in ultra-liberal Seattle—the race is noteworthy for its connection to the presidential campaign. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has endorsed Senator Jayapal, identifying her as part of the progressive bloc he would need in Congress in order to enact his campaign goals. With Sanders’ campaign on its last leg, Bernie supporters could look to local races, like the one in the 7th District, as a way to keep the Senator’s “political revolution” going through November.
In Washington’s U.S. Senate election, incumbent Democrat Patty Murray is running for her fifth term. Six years ago, she narrowly defeated Republican Dino Rossi during an election year that saw heavy Republican gains around the country. Murray’s accomplishments in her most recent term include the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, the result of a collaboration between her and Republican Representative Paul Ryan.
This agreement made minor changes to the federal budget, and reversed some of the spending cuts caused by the sequester in early 2013. Murray Currently serves as the Senate Democratic Conference Secretary, making her the fourth-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate.
This year, Murray faces former State Representative and chair of the Washington State Republican Party, Chris Vance. Vance has tried to position himself as a moderate who, if elected, would seek out bipartisan compromise in order to break legislative gridlock. Vance has made deficit reduction and entitlement reform central to his campaign, avoiding more controversial social issues such as the recent debate over transgender bathroom rights.
To a certain extent, Washington’s 2016 Senate race has been shaped by the presidential campaign as much as it has by the candidates running. Chris Vance has put himself at odds with some state Republicans by stating unequivocally that he will not vote for Donald Trump, going so far as to denounce the presumptive nominee for his positions on trade, foreign policy, and national defense.
Despite his opposition to the presumptive Republican nominee, Democrats have tried to cast Vance as a party loyalist who they say would fall in line with Trump’s agenda if both of them were to get elected in November. Even if he successfully distances himself from Trump, however, Vance faces an uphill battle to unseat Patty Murray. Polling conducted in mid-April showed the former State Representative trailing the Senator by nearly twenty points, and Democrats tend to perform well in Senate elections that take place during Presidential election years.
Governor Jay Inslee is running for re-election this year after a term plagued by prolonged budget battles, legislative gridlock, and an education funding crisis that lawmakers have been reluctant to address. In addition to this, the Governor has struggled to advance his environmentalist agenda: his proposal to implement a carbon tax as part of the 2015-17 state budget was even rejected by his fellow Democrats during the budget-writing process last year.
These setbacks, however, haven’t stopped Inslee from making some bold political moves. Last year, the Governor pledged his support for accepting Syrian refugees into the country amidst a wave of anti-refugee sentiment that led more than half the nation’s governors to announce their opposition to refugee resettlement. During the legislative session that took place earlier this year, Inslee vetoed 27 bills in order to pressure the legislature to pass a supplemental budget that allocated nearly $200 million in new spending, including money for mental health hospitals and wildfire relief.
Despite Inslee’s perceived vulnerability ahead of this year’s gubernatorial election, many potentially strong challengers declined to run against him. These include Republican State Senator Andy Hill, as well as U.S. Representatives Dave Reichert and Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Only Bill Bryant, a former Port of Seattle Commissioner, has filed to run against the incumbent.
Bryant became notorious in early 2015 for his role in arranging for the Port of Seattle to host Shell’s Polar Pioneer arctic drilling rig, a decision that drew the ire of environmentalists, including a flotilla of “kayaktivists.” Bryant has cast himself as a pragmatic moderate, who, if elected, would be able to find common ground among diverse interests and solve legislative gridlock in the state. He has also criticized Inslee for his opposition to charter schools, which Bryant believes are a positive educational resource for Washington students and their families.
Like the race between Patty Murray and Chris Vance, the gubernatorial race has been affected by the presidential campaign. Bryant has refused to say whether or not he plans to support Donald Trump, arguing that the issue is unimportant in a race for governor. Democrats have criticized him for avoiding the issue, arguing that Bryant’s refusal to denounce Trump is evidence that he is a partisan Republican, despite the former Port Commissioner’s claims to the contrary. Bryant’s equivocation on the Trump issue might already be hurting his campaign: the most recent poll shows Governor Inslee leading Bryant by double digits.