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County commission races: Were voters fooled?


The election of two conservatives to the county commission could be viewed as the latest in a long series of battles between the urban north and rural south county. Even so, unofficial election returns suggest that Lacey and Tumwater may have swung the election.

Democratic candidates Jim Cooper and Kelsey Hulse garnered roughly 56 percent of the vote in Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater. However, both got clobbered in the unincorporated areas of the county. Cooper received less than 43 percent of the vote and Hulse under 40 percent.

cocom-votes-tallYou might intuitively assume that the tri-cities had enough votes to overwhelm the rural parts of the county. In actuality, Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater together represented less than 44 percent of those who voted in the 2016 county commission races. That meant Cooper and Hulse would have needed to win urban precincts by landslide margins. That occurred in Olympia, where Cooper won 64 percent of the vote and Hulse surpassed 65 percent.

This pattern did not hold for Lacey and Tumwater. Here conservative independent John Hutchings held Cooper to a draw and former Republican sheriff Gary Edwards beat Hulse by roughly 4 percent.

One might assume that Edwards did well in the tri-cities because of superior name recognition to Hulse, who was new to local politics. However, Cooper presumably had high name recognition as an Olympia city council member yet Hulse received 473 more votes than him in Olympia (go here for further discussion).

So how did two conservative candidates win in a Democratic-leaning county during a high-turnout, presidential election? A more thorough analysis of precinct-level data should wait until final voting totals are released. What you see here are unofficial returns as of Nov. 23, which should be very close to final tallies. In the meantime, some local political observers have begun to offer their views.

Did voters not know that ‘independent’ meant hard-core conservative?

A green activist who canvassed for Cooper and Hulse wondered whether low-information voters were “taken in” by Hutchings and Edwards labeling themselves independents. Blogger Emmett O’Connell wrote before the election, “As much as I’d like to ask Edwards why he ditched the Republican Party, I think I know the cynical answer. (Bud) Blake showed that a conservative could be elected countywide if they ran without the Republican name.”

O’Connell’s analysis of 2014 election data found that Blake’s upset victory over Democratic incumbent Karen Valenzuela was at least partly a product of low turnout in Democratic-leaning precincts in the urban north. That’s not what happened in 2016, where O’Connell found that the Democrats were successful in mobilizing their base — as were Republicans in south county. This year the suburbs had the lower turnout.

Did swing voters in Lacey and Tumwater know that electing Hutchings and Edwards would push the Thurston County commission dramatically to the right? Blogger Ken Balsley quite rightly describes the ideological makeup of the new commission as shifting “from one of the most liberal bodies in the state, to one of the most conservative west of the Cascades.”

At an election-night party Edwards showed his cards. He reportedly told supporters, “It really looks like our country is having an awakening, if you follow the national situation, all the way right down here to the local.”

Did Hulse’s attempt to tie Edwards to Trump backfire?

This is hardly the first time that the county commission has been controlled by conservatives. As discussed further here, over the last 30 years control of the three-person commission has swung back and forth a number of times. The last time conservatives had a working majority was in 2002.

Steve Klein of the Yelm Community Blog observed that Trump’s election as president was a “down-ballot disaster” for the local Democrats.

Klein nevertheless offered hope that incoming commissioners will “find that sitting on the Commission and seeing things as they are from that vantage point are quite different than the rhetoric on the campaign trails. As mirrors the Presidential race, the county is divided and the Commissioner-elects’ wins by mere percentage points do not give them a mandate. Let’s hope with their previous leadership experience, they can bring divergent views together for the betterment of all Thurston County.”

This may require Hutchings to rise above sometimes inaccurate notions about how county government runs. Meanwhile, Edwards will need to tone down the approach he used as sheriff, when he engaged in macho stunts and lawsuit-provoking power plays.


PHOTO: Olympia, Earth Images


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