[BY S. SALMI | UPDATED AUG. 3]
A “progressive awakening” in local politics was mostly overpowered by business as usual in the August 1 primary. Perhaps because of relatively low turnout — 22.7 percent — the primary was very good to incumbents and establishment candidates.
Let’s take a look at the numbers now that the Thurston Auditor’s Office has counted all but 30 of 105,284 ballots.
Before we begin, I should note that Emmett O’Connell of Olympia Time has described the analysis below as “overblown.” Know that this post focuses primarily on how the candidates did in the primary. In future posts I’ll delve into key November races. That will include an updated analysis of campaign finance data and an exploration of turnout scenarios.
Greens show signs of life in Lacey
Perhaps the primary’s best news was that Carolyn Cox will challenge Ken Balsley for Lacey City Council Position 7 in the general election. Cox, the chair of the city’s planning commission and the candidate most favored by green groups, beat Rick (Ricardo) Nelsen by more than 4 percent despite being outspent by the owner of Ricardo’s steak house.
As discussed here, some feared that Cox and Madeline Goodwin would split the green vote, which would have resulted in Nelsen making it onto the November ballot. Instead, Cox outpaced Goodwin 25.7 percent to 18.5 percent. Although Goodwin had a number of powerful supporters, Cox has deeper roots in the community.
As O’Connell discusses, one should not assume that the November election will have the same voter profile as the primary, in no small part because turnout may be higher — and presumably include a greater proportion of younger and green-leaning voters. That said, Balsley goes into the general election as the front runner. He garnered more than 34 percent and is likely to inherit Nelsen’s voter base. The two of them tallied more than 55 percent.
Cox thus has an uphill battle. One issue that could play out in unpredictable ways is a proposed camping ban (see story here).
Olympia’s power elite takes the first round
Establishment candidates did well in two hotly contested races with green candidates. For City Council Position 6, incumbent Jeannine Roe garnered almost 46 percent despite being out-fundraised by Renata Rollins (go here for a discussion of campaign contributions). Rollins drew only 37 percent of the vote — and it is unclear whether she will inherit the lion’s share of Michael Snodgrass’s voter base. More than any of the other major races discussed here, this one could a require significantly higher turnout of green-leaning voters.
Greens would appear to have stronger prospects with Position 5, where Lisa Parshley and Deborah Lee together racked up almost 58 percent of the vote. Even so, attorney Allen Miller garnered more than 42 percent. This was in sync with his broader base of campaign donors than either of the other two candidates.
For Position 7, incumbent Jim Cooper not only received 67 percent of the vote, but his nearest competitor — Daniel Marsh — tallied less than 20 percent. Such a lopsided advantage is typically impossible to overcome in the general election.
More of the same in Tumwater
Incumbent Debbie Sullivan pulled almost 58 percent of the vote for Position 6. Brian Tomlinson will challenge her on the November ballot, but he has a lot of ground to make up after receiving 28 percent of the primary vote. The level of green interest in this race is illustrated by Thurston Environmental Voters, which did not endorse a candidate.
What can be learned from this election?
The day before the election Rob Richards noted on his Facebook page that turnout would be “(f)ar below many optimistic predictions of no drop-offs but instead, gains in turnout due to the ‘Progressive Awakening.'”
Chime in if you disagree, but my sense of local common wisdom is that an August primary election will have low turnout in the absence of an exceptionally controversial issue. Low turnout is typically accompanied by a high proportion of older and more conservative voters.
In order to counteract that, a green candidate would need to either have terrific name recognition — which usually only comes with incumbency — or an exceptionally strong get-out-the-vote operation. Most of the green campaigns would appear to have more to learn on the latter front.
One wildcard in the general election could be whether activists bury the hatchet and unite around primary winners. This may be most difficult with the Olympia Position 5 race.
As a case in point, on Green Pages’ Facebook page a Lee supporter railed against our campaign finance story. Kjersten Lidzbarski El Cano stated in part, “I’m frankly disgusted, as a young woman of colour, that the ONLY person who was attacked in this article is a woman of colour, and the only person in her race with experience in governmental procedures. This is exactly why young people of colour as so disheartened by the ‘progressive’ and ‘Democrats’ of Thurston County, we are left out of the conversation or completely disregarded.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, but for the moment the key question I have is this: How do you translate the enormous energy generated by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign into successful local races?
Primary returns suggest that “the revolution” will not be won by enthusiasm alone — it will also require stronger skills in such areas as fundraising, communications and getting out the vote. I would suggest that the main reason why Parshley received more votes than Lee is because her campaign had stronger skills in those areas.
The good news: These skills can be learned. The defeats of 2017 could be transformed into the victories of 2018 and beyond if we look at each race as a learning laboratory.
ALL OUR SOURCES:
- O’Connell, Emmett; 2017. “‘Olympia’s power elite’ is probably boxed in.” Olympia Time. Posted Aug. 3; accessed Aug. 3.