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Around the U.S. in 50 Days: Washington

The political situation in Washington will be well-watched in 2012. Considered safely blue by most pundits, a large portion of the population lives in the Seattle/Tacoma area and Democrats hold a decided advantage in this region. Once out of the area, however, the population is less sparse, more conservative and more Republican. Still, Washington’s 12 electoral votes will go to Obama continuing a trend that favored Gore, Kerry and Obama in 2008. Thus, our running count for the Presidency is Obama 16 electoral votes to the Republican nominee’s 3.
Before moving on to redistricting- the state gains a seat in the House- there are two statewide cases that need mention. For Senate, Democratic incumbent Maria Cantwell is seeking her third term in the Senate. She will most likely face state senator Michael Baumgartner. In 2010, the GOP lost a golden opportunity to gain a seat in the Senate against the more vulnerable and less popular Patty Murray. Consider the fact that Cantwell has approval ratings around 50% while Murray had approval ratings around 38% and still beat Dino Rossi. In all likelihood, Cantwell will win this race.
For Governor, 1st District Representative Jay Inslee is the likely Democratic nominee to replace unpopular incumbent Governor Christine Gregiore. The fact that Gregiore was losing to potential GOP opposition when they were still considering a run most likely led to the decision to retire rather than run for another term. At first glance, it would appear Inslee would have the inside track given the state’s blue status. However, the Republicans have a very viable and popular candidate in state Attorney General Rob McKenna. Despite Washington’s drift to the Democrats over the past several election cycles, McKenna has received widespread support in previous statewide elections for his current job. In 2004 and 2008, he won his election with close to 60% of the vote thus bucking that Democratic trend. Perhaps that is why in 2008, McKenna received several high profile endorsements from Democrats in the state. The only potential problem with a McKenna run is a state law that prohibits state officials from fundraising while the legislature is in session. Inslee, as a federal official, is under no such mandate. Still, with the help of outside groups and his own popularity, this should not present a major problem for McKenna. In fact, he may be more popular and better known, on a statewide basis, than Inslee at this point. Additionally, as Attorney General, McKenna has attacked child pornography and abuse, meth labs, and predatory sub-prime lending practices- three causes that reach across th political divide. Considering that Washington has not had a Republican Governor since 1980, if McKenna is not the man, then a Republican Governor in Washington will have to wait even longer.
Speaking of Inslee, he vacates the 1st District seat which encompasses the Puget Sound area of the state. With redistricting, the bipartisan panel that draws up the new maps had an easier job due to his vacancy. Since the 1st District will be an open race, it was the most likely candidate for adjustment without offending any other incumbents. Of course, this had ripple effects in other districts. Under the proposed and likely new maps, the district will stretch from the Seattle suburbs to the Canadian border thus incorporating not only liberal/Democratic strongholds, but also a greater proportion of more conservative voters. In effect, this district becomes less Democratic and should be competitive for the next decade. Redistricting also had the effect of helping vulnerable GOP incumbent David Reichert in the 8th District as well as freshman incumbent Jaime Herrera Buetler in the 3rd District. In fact, Democrats have targeted Reichert for defeat this cycle and although he is not completely out of the woods, the new map makes it more difficult to unseat him. Herrera-Beutler (What’s this? A female Republican? And Hispanic at that?) was not in as a precarious situation as Reichert, but as a freshman was considered ripe for picking off by the Democrats. Redistricting also helped vulnerable Democratic incumbent Rick Larsen in the 2nd District centered in the Everett area.
John Koster, who almost defeated Rick Larsen in the 2nd District in 2010, has been drawn into the new 1st District and will prove a viable and formidable foe for any Democrat for Inslee’s seat. Additionally, there are currently seven announced Democratic candidates in this District including Suzan DelBene, the former Microsoft executive, who seriously challenged Reichert in the 8th in 2010. Ideally, this will set up a Koster- DelBene match up and a fight to the finish. Because of the new lines, popular state representative Marko Liaas has been drawn into the 7th District which includes Seattle and is represented by McDermott, a Democrat. In 2010, he won by over 66 percentage points.
In the new 10th District, which will be based in Olympia’s Thurston County, Democrat Dan Heck, who lost to Herrera in the 3rd District in 2010 by only six percentage points, is the most likely Democratic candidate while no Republicans have stepped forward. Given his 2010 performance, one would have to conclude he will represent this new district.
Again, Dave Reichert, given his slim margins of victory in the past and the fact that the District has been trending Democratic in Presidential elections, seemed the most vulnerable of Republicans in Washington. However, by removing the more liberal King County from the District and replacing it with Kittitas and Chelan counties from the 4th District, the dynamics now favor Reichert. In fact, after the new map was announced, Rothenberg updated the race from leans Republican to likely Republican. Normally, this realignment would hurt the 4th District which is represented by Republican Doc Hastings. However, considering that he won by over 36 percentage points in 2010 makes the seat safe for the GOP.
The remainder of the of the Congressional delegation seems fairly safe. The 4th should be won by Hastings while Carol Rodgers who represents the eastern part of the state around the more conservative Spokane area and was once whispered as a possible candidate against Cantwell or Inslee, should also win. That leaves Norm Dicks in the 6th and Adam Smith in the 9th as safe Democrats.
The current Congressional make up is 5 Democrats and 4 Republicans. Redistricting creates the very real possibility of a 5-5 split in 2012. Although some may say this is unrealistic given the state’s blue status,, one needs to keep in mind the population distribution in the state. That “blue status” is being dictated by a small area- the Seattle/Tacoma area- in a very large state that is gaining population. Without any doubt, Washington represents an opportunity for the GOP to gain a seat in the House and mitigate anticipated losses elsewhere in the nation (like Illinois). There is the possibility of the coat tail effects of Obama carrying Democrats in close races. Republican chances of a Senate victory are very low. Where Obama may help is in the Governor’s race. It would be interesting to see how Inslee plays this: does he count on his liberal base in Seattle/Tacoma and embrace Obama, or does he try to build a coalition across the political divide and distance himself from Obama?
Going on a limb here, barring any major changes between now and Election Day 2012, Obama will win the state, Cantwell will be returned to the Senate and McKenna will become Governor. Dan Heck, a Democrat, will win the new 10th District while a Republican will take the 1st District being vacated by Inslee. In a running count thus far: Obama leads 16-3 in the electoral vote count, there is no change in the Senate, and the Congressional delegation is split 5-5 representing a net gain of 1 seat in the House for the GOP.

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