GovernorChristine Gregoire (D)
SenatorsPatty Murray (D)
Maria Cantwell (D)
- 6 D, 3 R
- 1 through 9
Washington state is national trendsetter. From Starbucks coffee to grunge music, from America’s leading exporter, Boeing, to the world’s leading software maker, Microsoft, to America’s most visible dot-com, amazon.com, Washington has been on the cutting edge of innovation. What was for many years an odd far corner of America is in many ways today a model for the rest of the nation. An unusual environment and human creativity combined to produce these achievements. Seattle’s cold, misty air and 225 overcast days a year stimulate the appetite for strong, aromatic coffee, and the shapeless blue jeans and sweatshirts worn year-round in this moist climate by professionals and teenagers alike created a trend made famous by Nirvana, Soundgarden and other grunge artists. Boeing’s airframe business took off during World War II because the Pacific Northwest’s abundant hydroelectric power made cheap aluminum possible, and the boom in air travel in the 1980s and 1990s kept Boeing’s huge assembly lines humming. Microsoft, founded by the usually tie-less and tousle-haired Bill Gates and based in Redmond, across Lake Washington from Seattle, became one of America’s great success stories as its software became embedded in the vast majority of the world’s computers. With flannel shirts and umbrellas, blue-collar types (as if in a Raymond Carver story) as well as white-collar professionals relaxing on woodsy acreage, Washington set a tone for the late 1990s, a style plainly Middle American but with attitude, an ordinariness so hip it is no longer ordinary. Washington is a commonwealth of nearly 6.5 million people, advancing economically in spite of big setbacks in recent years and pleased to the point of smugness with its physical environment and lifestyle. Washington has had its woes, but has bounced back, displaying strengths that have proved to be more durable than fashion.
Washington is not much more than a century old. In the two decades after it became a state in 1889, it built a new civilization as transcontinental railroads reached the great ports of Puget Sound, the wheat-processing city of Spokane, and the orchard towns, fishing ports and lumber settlements. Shielded from the storms of the Pacific Ocean by the Olympic Mountains and the sound, Seattle quickly became a serious American city, a lusty town full of lumbermen and railroad workers. When gold was struck in the Klondike and in Alaska, Seattle became a metropolis of miners, prospectors and get-rich-quick operators, the site of the original “Skid Road,” where logs were rolled downhill to the port (today it’s part of gentrified Pioneer Square). In the years before World War I, thriving young Seattle’s politics were turbulent, as class warfare pitted the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, or Wobblies) against city business and civic leaders. The businessmen, after some violence, prevailed. Adding to the area’s distinctiveness was its large number of Scandinavian immigrants, with their favorable views of cooperative enterprises and government ownership.
Over time, Washington was transformed by a series of national decisions that set its course for decades. One was government development of hydroelectric power. The Columbia River and its tributary, the Snake River, falling thousands of feet in a relatively short distance, had far greater hydroelectric potential than any other American river system, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who grew up in another scenic river valley, was always interested in these aqueous projects. In 1937, Bonneville Dam was completed on the lower Columbia. In 1940, Grand Coulee Dam, the largest man-made structure in the world at the time and still the nation’s single greatest producer of electricity, was opened where the Columbia cuts through the arid, surrealistically contoured plains of eastern Washington. Washington proved hospitable to the industrial-union movement of the 1930s and became one of the nation’s most heavily unionized states. When war came, Washington’s hydroelectric power—the cheapest electricity in the country—made it the natural site for huge aluminum-production plants, which required vast amounts of electricity. The Seattle area became the home not only of shipbuilders, but also of the biggest aircraft manufacturer in the country, Boeing, founded in 1916 by William Boeing in a converted shipyard on the Duwamish River. During the war, the Hanford plant on the Columbia was secretly one of the government’s main nuclear-weapons manufacturing sites; after the war, it was open about that status. Cheap power, aluminum, aircraft, nuclear weapons and high unionized wages—these became Washington’s economic foundations in the post-World War II years.
Today’s Washington lives less off the brawn of hydroelectric power and rail and ship tonnage and more off the brains that made Boeing the world leader in aircraft and Microsoft the world leader in software. Yet there has been some trouble in this misty paradise. One turning point was December 1999, when Seattle hosted a meeting of the World Trade Organization. It was supposed to be an occasion for the city to shine in the international spotlight. But 50,000 demonstrators took control of the streets, smashing Starbucks windows and preventing leaders from President Bill Clinton on down from attending meetings. Seattle’s police chief and mayor either did not or could not stop the violence, and the world’s lasting image of Seattle was lawlessness and violence in the streets. That event was followed by the Mardi Gras riots in February 2001, and fed-up voters took charge. Mayor Paul Schell carried only 22% of the vote in the September 2001 primary, becoming the first Seattle mayor in 45 years to lose a re-election bid.
Washington also took a body blow from the dot-com bust. The high-tech industry boomed as businesses retooled to avoid Y2K problems, and then it suddenly became apparent that customers had all the technology they needed. The stock market started tanking in March 2000, and thousands of dot-com companies were taken down. Microsoft had been sued by the U.S. Justice Department’s Antitrust Division in 1998. And in March 2001, Boeing’s chairman announced that the firm’s headquarters would move out of Seattle to Chicago. Then, after the September 11 attacks, the hard-hit airline industry cut back on orders. Boeing reduced its Seattle-area employment from 102,000 in 1997 to 62,000 in 2002. The company continued to suffer from the airline recession, competition from Airbus and congressional opposition to the proposal to lease KC-767 aerial refueling tankers, a proposal that failed amid revelations of corruption. Recovery from the recession was slow. For a couple of years, Washington’s unemployment was the second highest in the nation, after Oregon’s; the state lost 84,000 jobs between 2001 and 2003. Amid this turbulence, the fundamentals undergirding Washington’s affluent lifestyle seemed threatened. Proposals by the Clinton administration to breach the dams on the Snake River threatened to reduce hydroelectric supply and to choke the agriculture of eastern Washington just as the court decision to protect the endangered spotted owl had largely shut down Washington’s logging industry in the early 1990s. Light snowpacks and melting glaciers also threatened to reduce the supply of hydroelectric power even as demand from energy-starved California seemed likely to draw down the supply. For years, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which produced plutonium for the military, leaked radioactive waste, and it has been undergoing a multiyear cleanup costing billions of dollars annually.
All these problems may turn out to be no more than footnotes. Look at a map that shows elevation of mountains and density of population. On both sides of the Pacific, vast numbers of people are squeezed into small margins of level land between steeply rising volcanic mountains and the sea or tucked into nearby valleys. These islands of settlement are surrounded by vast wildernesses—desert and mountains, open sea and Arctic lands. Yet in the past three decades, the inhabitants of these pockets along the Pacific Rim have produced more economic growth than anywhere else in the world, and though there have been occasional slumps, the Pacific Rim has always come surging back. Boeing overcame the 767 scandal, and its 787 Dreamliner has clobbered Airbus’s troubled A350 in advanced orders. However, the plane’s inaugural flight has been delayed for almost two years, and concerns about its weight prompted Boeing to reduce the projected flight range for the first set of Dreamliners. Microsoft has survived the federal antitrust case, a huge fine from European Union antitrust authorities, Bill Gates’s retirement and ventures into superphilanthropy. Its 35,000-employee Redmond campus may have produced a competitor for Google in Bing. Starbucks, once the fastest-growing retail business of all time, has had problems during the latest recession, as people have tended to curb their $3.50 caffè latte habits. But amazon.com has made big profits, while brick-and-mortar booksellers struggle. Hydroelectric power may have reached its capacity, but Washington ranks fifth among the states in wind power, and a state Supreme Court ruling has barred local governments from banning wind farms. The insurance firm Safeco was bought by Boston-based Liberty Mutual, and subprime lender Washington Mutual collapsed. But its bad loans were concentrated elsewhere, and Washington has had lower-than-average foreclosure rates.
Politically, Washington, with its Scandinavian and labor-union heritage, was in the 1930s one of the most Democratic northern states. Roosevelt’s campaign manager, James Farley, used to refer to “the 47 states and the Soviet of Washington.” Its mainstream Democrats—notably Warren Magnuson and Henry (Scoop) Jackson, who represented the state in Congress for a total of 87 years—believed in an active and compassionate federal government that built dams, aluminum plants and the Hanford Works at home and an internationalist, anti-Communist foreign policy abroad. Their political strength came out of a blue-collar base, augmented by the respect big business had for their political clout. Today, the fulcrum of the electorate has moved from blue collar to white collar, from economic class warfare to culture wars, with the balance favoring the Democrats. In presidential races, Washington has voted exclusively Democratic since 1988. Washington’s governor and both of its senators are Democrats, and all are women. Democrats seem to have a secure hold on six of Washington’s nine U.S. House seats. Four different Democrats have held the governorship since 1984, but the party almost lost it in 2004. The official count, after many shenanigans and legal challenges, declared Democrat Christine Gregoire the winner by 129 votes. And although Republicans lost control of the state Senate, they gained the attorney general’s office. In 2006, the pendulum swung hard in favor of the Democrats. They nearly captured the 8th District U.S. House seat, which would have eliminated Republican representation west of the Cascades, and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell was re-elected by a solid 57%-40%, sweeping western Washington and carrying Spokane County in the east as well. Democrats increased their majorities from three to 15 in the state Senate and from 14 to 28 in the state House. Gregoire attributed these gains to the Democrats’ moderation, their resolution of a water dispute in eastern Washington, passage of tax relief for farmers and timber sellers, a compromise settlement on unemployment insurance and tough penalties for sex offenders. She pressed for pay increases for teachers and other public employees, and Washington now has the nation’s highest minimum wage. The balance seemed to remain steady in 2008. Gregoire was re-elected in a rematch with her 2004 opponent, Republican Dino Rossi, by a not-dazzling but not-ambiguous 53%-47%. Republicans held the 8th District House seat, and Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna was re-elected 59%-41%. In the state Legislature, Republicans gained one seat in the Senate and lost one seat in the House. And by a 58%-42% split, Washington voters approved an assisted-suicide law similar to Oregon’s.
The political lines are fairly clear. The central city of Seattle is a liberal bastion, the upscale suburbs are trending Democratic, and while in the past, the old blue-collar lumber-country strongholds have soured on many Democrats, they’ve been tilting Democratic too. Seattle’s King County, by far the most affluent county in the state, casts 30% of the state’s votes, and it went 65% for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004 and 70% for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. Eastern Washington, the arid country east of the Cascades with much lower income levels, is generally Republican but casts only about 20% of the state’s votes. The region went 59% for GOP President George W. Bush in 2004 and 54% for Republican nominee John McCain in 2008. Gov. Gregoire lost eastern Washington 60%-40% in 2008, but her 64%-36% advantage in King County would have elected her even if she had not carried the rest of western Washington, which cast half the state’s votes, 52%-48%. Demographics may work in the Republicans’ favor. King County had a population gain of only 8% between 2000 and 2008, while the heavily Republican Tri-Cities area (Benton and Franklin counties) gained 23%, as did marginal Clark County, north of Portland. (Washington has no income tax and Oregon no sales tax, so you can avoid both taxes by living in Clark County and shopping across the line in Oregon.) But Republican hopes may depend on changing their conservative approach. Rossi, Gregoire’s opponent, combined fiscal conservatism with a feisty call for change in 2004 and 2008, but fell short. In his race for attorney general, the more moderate McKenna carried King County 54%-46% and won 60% in the rest of the west and 68% in the east.
A footnote on Washington’s primaries: The state does not have party registration, and from 1935 to 2000, it allowed voters to choose candidates of various parties in its primaries: The top Democrat and top Republican in each constituency was deemed nominated, and the percentage of total votes won by incumbents in September primaries was often a harbinger of their performance in November general elections. But in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 ruling, threw out a similar California primary system, and in 2003, a federal appeals court ruled Washington’s system invalid. The Supreme Court’s argument was that this arrangement violated the political parties’ right to self-expression. In 2004, Washington voters passed Initiative 872, which allowed voters to select a candidate from either party, so that the two candidates with the most votes would move to the general election, regardless of party. In anticipation of the 2005 off-year primaries, both parties held nominating conventions to avoid application of 872, and in July 2005, a federal appeals court ruled the initiative invalid. That seemed to be the end of that, but in February 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on the validity of 872,and in March 2008, it upheld the law in a 7-2 ruling. That decision came after the February presidential caucuses and primaries, but the August 2008 primary was run under 872. The result that some critics dreaded—two candidates of the same party facing off in the general election—occurred in only four of 124 state legislative races and in none of the nine congressional races.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
For three decades, Washington was one of the most contrarian states in presidential politics, voting for Republican losers Richard Nixon in 1960 and Gerald Ford in 1976 and Democratic losers Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. In the 1990s, it was more in sync with the nation, voting for Democrat Bill Clinton twice. Since then, it has moved significantly toward the Democrats, voting 50%-45% for Al Gore in 2000, 53%-46% for John Kerry in 2004 and 58%-40% for Barack Obama in 2008. In the first two contests, the winning margin and more came from just one of the state’s nine congressional districts, the 7th District, which includes all of Seattle and close-in suburbs to the north and south in King County, where Democrats won more than 70% of the vote. In 2008, Obama carried the 7th district with 84% of the vote, but would have won without it. Voting behavior seems to be a function more of cultural values than of economic status. High-income voters were not much less likely than others to vote for Obama, and his support was greater among college graduates than non-graduates, and even greater among those with graduate degrees. Some 24% of voters were white evangelical Protestants, and they voted 70% for Republican nominee John McCain; 19% reported their religion as “other” or “none,” and they voted 71% for Obama.
Washington switched from a caucus system to primaries in 1992, after conservative evangelical candidate Pat Robertson won among Republicans and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson finished a solid second among Democrats in 1988. But Democrats have never chosen to allocate delegates according to the results, preferring to use the results from party caucuses for that. In 2000, Democrat Bill Bradley, having lost in Iowa and New Hampshire and having no other states to contest for five weeks, came to Washington for the February 29 contest to no avail; Gore won the caucus by about 2-to-1. Republican George W. Bush beat McCain by a razor-thin margin in a primary that counted a little toward delegate selection. In 2004, Washington’s Democrats held caucuses on February 7, and Kerry defeated Howard Dean, despite the huge crowds the bombastically liberal Dean had attracted in Seattle.
In early 2007, the parties were divided on what to do in 2008. Republicans, including Secretary of State Sam Reed, wanted to hold a primary on February 5 that would count toward electing delegates. Democrats were divided, with many favoring eliminating the primary. In June, a bipartisan panel of state lawmakers and party leaders came to agreement and voted unanimously to hold the primary on February 19, in hopes of being early enough to be relevant but not so early as to get lost amid the many states holding February 5 contests. But both parties also held caucuses on February 9. Republicans decided to allocate about half their delegates based on primary results; Democrats decided to use only caucus results to allocate delegates.
When Democrats caucused on the Saturday after Super Tuesday, Obama beat Hillary Rodham Clinton 68%-31%. He carried every county, getting 100% in tiny Garfield County, where only one person showed up to vote. In the primary 10 days later, Obama prevailed by a much narrower margin, 51%-46%, illustrating the huge advantage he and his organization had in caucus states. Turnout was 691,000; Obama ran strongest, 55.5%, in King County and barely won the rest of the state, running behind in more-downscale areas like Pierce County (Tacoma) and Clark County (Vancouver, across the Columbia from Portland, Ore.).
The Republican contests produced murkier results. In the February 9 caucus, McCain got 26% of the votes, Mike Huckabee 24% and Ron Paul 22%. All three, unlike the Democrats, campaigned in the 10 days before the February 19 primary, in which McCain won 50% of the votes, Huckabee 24%, Mitt Romney 16% and Paul 8%. McCain carried every county. Turnout was 530,000; McCain did better in King County and the rest of western Washington than in the eastern part of the state.
|111th Congress: 6 D, 3 R|
In 1983, Washington voters approved a constitutional amendment that provided that congressional and legislative districts be drawn by a bipartisan commission; the lines can be changed by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. If the commission is deadlocked, the issue goes to the state Supreme Court. In 1991, the commission created four districts that were pretty evenly divided between the parties. The one problem was that even minor alterations in the closely divided districts—the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 9th—could turn out to be of partisan significance. But a decade later, the 2002 plan followed pretty closely the lines drawn in 1991. The Washington plan has been lauded by many for taking partisanship out of redistricting and for creating more districts that both parties can win. But in Washington, where the commission is not bound by the mathematical requirements that in Iowa have resulted in districts not tailored to incumbents, incumbent protection has been the result.
Projections indicate there’s a chance that Washington will gain a House seat in the reapportionment following the 2010 census. In that case, most or all of the new district will probably be west of the Cascades; the heavily Republican area east of the Cascades, which currently is carved into two districts, will be entitled to about 2.2 districts. If the state continues to have nine districts, there probably will not be major changes in the lines.