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32 years north, 28 south


Washington has been getting national notice for its long-running stretch of Democratic governorships, with 32 years now passing since the last time a Republican (John Spellman, a King County executive, in 1980) – the longest unbroken run by Democrats for that office in the country. (That’s eight elections; by comparison, the GOP in much more Republican Idaho stand at five.)

But what does that really indicate about Washington – or Oregon, which is close behind at seven consecutive Democratic gubernatorial wins?

Both a little less and a little than meets the eye. Republican John Carlson, who himself was one of those losing Republican nominees for the office (in 2000), has out on Crosscut an excellent recap of those races from 1984 to present, running through explanations of why those races turned out as they did. It’s a highly recommended read as a fine recent overview of Washington politics.

Allowing for some quibbles and a small slice of partisan view, Carlson’s take here seems fair and reasonable. He writes, “Washington is more liberal today than it was during the Reagan era, but of those eight races, one was essentially a tie, one was squandered, one was blown in the primary, two were lost at the national level, and two others were unwinnable.”

The two unwinnables (quibble: no race is totally unwinnable, but these were surely extremely difficult for a challenger) were the re-election campaigns for Democrats Booth Gardner and Gary Locke. “Essentially a tie” was the Chris Gregoire win in 2004 (a fair description) – the Republican there (Dino Rossi) was a coin flip from winning. And the others? They were a combination of poor Republican choices, either of nominee or of specific campaign tactics, and of the national political environment, especially presidential races. Washington’s gubernatorial elections run in the same cycles with presidentials, so the national picture is apt to have some significant impact. In 1980 and 1984, when Ronald Reagan won Washington, that may have helped Republican candidates a bit (though 1984 was when the Democratic streak began, owing partly to a bum economy at the time). But since then, the state has voted Democratic for president, more and more strongly, and that must have been one of the factors boosting Democrat Jay Inslee this year.

Also worth noting: Many of these races have been close. This year’s was roughly a 52-48 race; so (roughly) was 2008; 2004 was a near-tie; and 1992 was another 52-48. That level – fairly close, albeit with a Democratic edge – seems to have emerged as a norm, barring a governor who is personally either very popular or unpopular.

So what of Oregon, where the governors are elected on the off years? Is there a shorthand for those races?

The last Republican to win in Oregon (twice) was Vic Atiyah, in 1978 and 1982. From 1986 to present, it’s been all Democrats. What lessons can be drawn from those elections?

First, they may be consistently Democratic, but they’re generally not strongly Democratic. Of those seven races, there was just one true landslide: Democrat John Kitzhaber’s in 1998 (64.5%) over Bill Sizemore. Otherwise, the best Democratic percentage in those seven races was the 52% won by Neil Goldschmidt in 1986. In three of those seven Democratic wins, the Democrat won less than 50% of the vote (2010, 2002 and 1990). That’s a little misleading, because minor candidates siponed off several percentage points in some of those elections. But at least two of those races, Kitzhaber’s win in 2010 and Ted Kulongoski’s in 2002, were genuinely close.

Were any of those races “unwinnable” for Republicans, as the campaigns began? The judge at least from the end result, Kitzhaber’s in 1998 probably was: He was a popular governor running at a time of general good feelings in the state, and at a time when there seemed to be some edging away from Republicans after their 1994 peak (though the party did gain four seats in the state Senate that year). 2006, widely seen at the time as a highly competitive year, seems less so in hindsight, with a national move toward Democrats (they seized control of the state House that year).

Aside from those years, did the Republicans throw away their chances with their choice of a nominee, or general campaign strategy? In 2010 Chris Dudley had his flaws as a candidate, but it’s hard to argue with the closeness of his loss – the closest Oregon gubernatorial race in more than half a century. Might another candidate (Ron Saxton, say, instead of Kevin Mannix) have won in the close result of 2002? That’s almost impossible to know. (Might the more moderate image of Saxton denied him the base enthusiasm, or increased third-party voting, enough to deny him as well the win?) And the Republican candidates in 1986 and 1990, Norma Paulus and Dave Frohnmayer, then as now are the kind of Republicans who many analysts have said the party needs to run to win, but neither race was razor-close.

The larger conclusion may just be this: As voting has solidified in Washington and Oregon, a slightly but importantly larger number of voters have locked in to voting for Democrats for major offices, not enough to guarantee Democratic wins but enough to give them a consistent clear edge absent some unusual extreme headwind. Republicans statewide in these places, it seems, have to wait for good luck as well as make no mistakes when the opportunity arises. Neither condition by itself seems to be enough. For now, at least.

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