With the dust settling from Tuesday’s latest wave of primaries and special elections disappointment and excitement seem to go hand in hand for Democrats. Ever eager to see the silver lining in any result the party is pointing to the results of WA State’s jungle primaries as proof of a wave cometh. Republicans are right to fret about the results as their candidates posted underwhelming numbers. But Democrats might also be celebrating prematurely.
First-off, any analysis of WA-State must include two very important variables. The state is one of only three states to utilize a jungle primary wherein every candidate for a particular seat regardless of party runs on the same ballot (ie. 3 Rs, 3D’s 2I’s). The top two vote-getters advance to the general election, again, regardless of party. Secondly, WA State was one of the few states that does their elections completely by mail (since this was first instituted in 1991) and more states have followed (Oregon and Colorado while 19 other states allow voting by mail for certain elections). These dynamics, at play since 2012, make WA State an interesting electoral locale.
The results from WA State’s jungle primary Tuesday night were not notable for the candidates to emerge but rather the raw voting margins. In the highly competitive and open WA-8, GOP candidate Dino Rossi led the pack with 43 percent. But Democratic vote totals outpaced his by 7 percent (the rest when to Independent candidates). The district has been represented by GOP Representative Dave Reichert since 2004 but narrowly backed Obama twice and Clinton in 2016. Rossi is a known commodity in the swing seat having run twice for Governor and once for Senator (and winning the district all three times) but the results do not portend well for November.
In the redder WA-3 and WA-8 the results were eye-popping at first glance. In the 3rd CD, Jaime Herrera Beutler led the field but the total Republican vote was just eclipsed by the Democratic total. In the much redder WA-5 represented by Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the 4th highest ranking Republican in Congress, barely led her challenger 49-46. The latest batch of votes put the Republican total up to about 51 (with a Trump Independent carrying three percent). In addition, in a number of state legislative contests in normally red Vancouver (just one example), Democrats ran head of Republican incumbents.
These results have Democrats seeing a blue wave in November. Especially considering election analyst (and one I trust) Sean, among others, came out and said WA State primary results are generally predicative of general election results (if underestimating Democrats turnout). Indeed, since switching to it’s jungle primary in 2012, the same could be said in California.
Still, this might be jumping the gun. Trend, in an article over at RCP notes, “Overall, I tested to see how the result in November correlates with the result from the primary and the number of candidates running in that primary. The resulting model works awfully well. The r-square is 0.93 and the variables point the way that we would expect them to point.” That is geek speak for testing the connection between variables. He adds, “In general, Democrats in Washington state perform better in the fall than they do in the summer — this makes sense, given what we know about general election turnout vs. primary turnout. In 2012 they performed, overall, 3.5 percent better in the fall. In 2010 they performed 5.5 percent better in the fall. The only exception is 1996, where they performed about three-tenths of a point worse in the fall.”
But, here is the thing. In 2010, 2012, and 2014 the man in charge of the country was a Democrat. In those cases it was Republicans who were jazzed up to turn out while it was Democrats who only reluctantly showed up at the polls in November. Might we be seeing something similar in November where Republicans hold their numbers or even improve them in November? The data certainly points to a maybe.
How so you might ask? Well, consider turnout in WA-5’s primary Tuesday increased by 22,000 ballots. In WA-3 it upped by 32,000. If we assume this was due to Democratic excitement (they were the ones who upped their margins) and Democrats are rearing to vote (just look at the early voting numbers in OH-12) how many extra votes can they actually garner? Additionally, if Democrats are excited already and Republicans are in a panic the GOP will be the one urging its non-primary voters to show up in November. So, in actuality, these primary numbers might help the GOP avoid a surprise in red territory. But they certainly are not good news for Dino Rossi.
It should also be noted despite Democrats gaining ground in red territory they have been unable to break out a win (PA-18 was ancestrally Democratic unlike a ancestrally red OH-12). In WA-State in particular, the GOP ran ahead of Trump in a losing special election last year by 15 points in a King County suburban seat. So, all in all, Republicans until Tuesday actually were sitting pretty in the state.
Democrats have reason to celebrate the results Tuesday. They made Republicans sweat in OH-12 and made not one but three WA seats look competitive. But dig beneath the surface and you have to wonder how many more Democrats the party can turn out when it is already maxing out its results. Republicans, on the other hand, seem to have additional voters to go. In a district as red leaning as WA-5 this might be a concern but in WA-3 it could mean the difference between victory and defeat. So, Democrats might be a bit premature in celebrating just yet.