The Democratic Party promises to contest “every race every place.” Yet its efforts to appeal to voters in eastern Washington remain listless.
You may for example have noticed when voting for 7th District state lawmakers this month that your ballot offered empty blanks where Democrats’ names should have been.
There’s more than one way to deprive citizens of their right to vote. One of them is to not offer any candidates to vote for. Another is to withhold financial support from campaigns.
These are hardly strategies that build support for a political party. But they do seed resentment. Voters notice when they’re ignored.
Doug White overcame this inertia. He’s the political novice from Yakima who finished the primary in a dead heat with incumbent Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse in the 4th Congressional District race. White raised $450,000 in his effort to win one for a party that didn’t give him a dime.
Yet he’s enthusiastic about the noncash help the party did provide: “They showed the love,” he says.
He understands the party’s need to allocate limited funds to battleground races elsewhere, White told the Methow Valley News. He’s in discussions with party officials about funding for the general election. “We are so close to flipping this,” White says.
As for party building? White partially credits his primary success to unprecedented outreach to — and bilingual public meetings for — Latino voters in Yakima and the Tri-Cities. But White’s case is not typical.
“It’s incredibly hard to recruit someone to run when you know ahead of time that there will be very little support from the state party,” says Katie Haven, Democratic Party chair in Okanogan County.
Benton and Franklin counties, home to the Tri-Cities, have a rapidly growing metro area population well above 300,000, the 4th Congressional District’s largest. Even so, says Benton County Democratic chair Richard Reuther, “We’re not getting a lot of help from the state party. They’ve basically written us off.”
For many years the Democratic Party abandoned most of eastern Washington to Republicans. But since Tina Podlodowski took over the state chairmanship, things have improved, says Haven.
Podlodowski sits in on Zoom sessions when Central Washington Democratic leaders meet. The party pays for field organizers and offers $1,000 grants to help move things along.
“But it is not a serious effort,” says Haven. “The feeling is that they have pretty much conceded that a Democrat can’t win in Congressional Districts 4 and 5, and I don’t see them putting much effort into these races from this point on,” she adds.
Yet Democrats — apparently unexpectedly — may now be positioned to win a Congressional seat in Eastern Washington.
White and Newhouse each garnered just over 25% of the primary vote. The other half went mostly to far right candidates, chiefly Loren Culp.
Where these voters will go come November remains unknown. If their passion is simply to punish Newhouse for voting to impeach Donald Trump, they may abstain on general election day. Or resort to write-in voting.
With Newhouse wounded by a good deed, White understood that inflamed, ill-suited Republican challengers would draw votes away from Newhouse.
From the outset, White rightly counted on landing where he is today: as a credible general election challenger. But will he now get enough party support to get across the general election finish line?
Will the seldom-seen Senate candidate Patty Murray, say, be seen at White’s side promoting the Democrats’ brand in the Tri-Cities — where Newhouse finished two points ahead — and in Yakima, where White won?
This is the moment when a serious push for voter turnout might make a difference for a capable underdog candidate. Win or lose, it would at least show people in eastern Washington that the Democratic Party takes them seriously. Which is, after all, how you build political support.
The party’s urban leadership may have missed the memo. But hereabouts we know that demographically things have changed in eastern Washington, where availability of broadband has been one major game changer driving economic and demographic changes.
The change in who lives here is why White got the most votes — 30% to Newhouse’s 22% — in the formerly impenetrably Republican Okanogan County. Again, the rest of that vote went chiefly to Culp. Even so, says Haven, “The needle is moving” toward Dirt Road Democrats.
Meanwhile, ponder this: In a worst-case scenario where election mischief by Trumpians requires the U.S. House of Representatives to decide the outcome of November’s election, each state’s House delegation gets one vote. Republicans control 26 state delegations in the House; Democrats control 20. In state legislatures, Republicans control 62 senate and house chambers; Democrats control only 36.
How did this happen? Hello? Strategic thinking by Republicans, who play the long game.
And Democrats? Not so much. Party building has not really been their thing, a failing President Obama himself pleaded guilty to.
Republicans invested 40 years of treasure, toil and tears to get a conservative court — and to achieve control of roughly twice as many state lawmaking chambers as Democrats.
Those legislative/Congressional numbers suggest that the difficulties Democrats exhibit in eastern Washington have become part of their national brand.
They’ve failed to summon the patience to devise, fund, and stick with — win or lose — an initially unrewarding party-building strategy that eventually pays off — yes, even in “rural” America.
Solveig Torvik, a former Washington, D.C.- based political correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, lives near Winthrop.