Sunday, December 4, 2022
Dec. 4, 2022

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Westneat: ‘Seattle problem’ spreads


A decade ago, Republicans convened a meeting at a political conference in Ocean Shores, Grays Harbor County, to discuss what they dubbed “the Seattle problem.”

“James Carville famously coined the motto … ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ ” a GOP campaign consultant told the crowd. “Our problem is not King County. It’s Seattle, stupid. That’s all it is.”

The gist was that Seattle had become so left-wing that a decent goal for GOP candidates was to lose it by only 50 percentage points. But the suburbs were not like the activist city. Focus on moderate places like Bellevue, Federal Way or Redmond, the conference concluded, and Republicans can do just fine.

A precinct analysis of our latest election shows how seismically politics has shifted since then. In an election in which Republicans hoped people would recoil from Seattle, the suburbs instead ended up mimicking it.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray won Seattle by 88 percent to 11 percent, a 77-point margin. For GOP candidate Tiffany Smiley to earn only 11 percent of the Seattle vote means she scarcely did any better than the most-loathed figure in Seattle in memory, Donald Trump.

But what ought to be setting off GOP sirens is that the supposedly more sober and cautious suburbs are becoming nearly as left-wing as the city.

Take Issaquah. It was known as “Swingtown, WA,” due to the way the town swiveled between Republicans and Democrats. But last week Issaquah backed Murray by 73 percent to 27 percent. Murray won Bellevue by 40 points, Kirkland by 44 and Redmond by a crushing 50 points.

Even in the south end and other points distant from Seattle, the GOP is reeling. Murray won both Federal Way and Auburn by about 60-40.

The problem for Republicans isn’t that this was an unusual setback. It’s that it’s the new normal. For four elections in a row, the blue vote totals have soared in the ‘burbs — this latest one coming without Trump himself even on the ballot. It means the party’s desultory “MAGA” image around here is becoming baked in.

Some of the suburbs are starting to vote kind of Seattle-like even on hot-button urban issues such as crime.

Take the nonpartisan King County prosecutor’s race. It pitted a “get tough on crime” candidate, Jim Ferrell, against a candidate offering a more nuanced approach, Leesa Manion. Manion campaigned heavily on ramping up alternative sentencing and court diversion programs while also saying more resources are needed for traditional law enforcement.

The “get tough” candidate lost. This was despite rising violent crime. He lost in Seattle, which might be expected, but he also lost in a host of suburbs.

Does this settle our go-hard or go-soft debate about crime? Probably not, but it may make the picture clearer. The point is: It’s not solely a Seattle thing anymore.

As for the future of our local politics, the GOP’s prospects seem dismal. As long as the national party continues its jihad against reproductive rights and Trump looms off to the east like a mushroom cloud, it’s hard to see how local Republicans will escape the toxic fallout.

The bottom line is the GOP doesn’t just have a “Seattle problem” anymore. It has spread. The suburbs, which once may have formed a buffer of moderation around the city, are becoming the city.