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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Jayne: State Legislature losing its swing

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: December 6, 2020, 6:02am

Maybe it’s a problem, maybe it isn’t. But one of the interesting results of the 2020 election is that the Washington Legislature has just about lost its swing.

As detailed in an analysis by political reporter and columnist Jim Camden of The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, fewer and fewer legislative districts in the state can be called swing districts. Most are either reliably Republican or reliably Democrat when it comes to choosing legislators, with little chance of any district dividing its loyalties.

Following last month’s election, three of Washington’s 49 districts will be represented by both parties in Olympia among its three lawmakers (two representatives and one senator). Well, there actually are four; but Sen. Tim Sheldon in the 35th District on the Olympic Peninsula calls himself a Democrat yet caucuses with the Republicans.

In 1991, according to Camden, more than one-third of legislative districts had at least one lawmaker from each of the major parties. That number has gradually decreased, reflecting the polarization of national politics.

In Southwest Washington, the 49th District, covering the urban area of Vancouver, has been blue for years. The 17th District, covering mostly suburban areas, and the rural 18th District have been red.

Sure, there are differences. The 18th District is more red than red; the 17th is closer to swinging, but always falls in the Republican category.

This is neither good nor bad. But it is interesting, and it reflects a pox that has been placed upon this country. More and more, Americans are not voting so much for the individual or in favor of a particular party, but instead are voting against the other party.

As far back as 2014, which seems like an epoch ago in political terms, Pew Research Center found that 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans said positions taken by the other party are a “threat to the nation’s well-being.” This year, according to the Survey Center on American Life, 75 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Democrats held that position.

As I wrote in 2014: “Many of us are so insulated in our ideological beliefs that we fear the other side is actually a danger to the country. Which, if you think about it, doesn’t say much for our belief in this nation or her people or the sturdiness of our political system. If you fear that a particular political ideology is a threat to this country, then ye of little faith.”

And yet, that faith has been further shaken, with Donald Trump spending four years driving every available wedge deeper into our national psyche.

Trump, of course, is a symptom of this polarization; he’s not the disease. But with national media increasingly dominating the landscape and with local news being systematically diminished, there appears to be little hope for a quick cure.

As Todd Donovan, a professor at Western Washington University, told The Spokesman-Review: “Everything down the ballot is so nationalized. People are voting straight tickets, seeing things through partisan lenses.”

Which seems to be self-defeating. Because Republican candidates in Southwest Washington are quite different from Donald Trump; Democratic candidates are much different from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Yet both sides are quick to assess candidates based on the most extreme examples as provided by national media. And they are quick to make decisions about local races based on national cultural issues such as religious rights, gay rights or the Second Amendment rather than close-to-home issues.

Yet it seems that most of the issues the Legislature deals with — such as how best to educate our children or whether to raise taxes or the state’s response to the pandemic — have little to do with the goings-on in the other Washington. And it seems that lawmakers who have proven they can get things done, such as Paul Harris on the right or Monica Stonier on the left, are beneficial for Southwest Washington.

When we ignore that, well, it becomes a problem.