Is This the Year of the Donkey for Washington State?

Anger at Bush May Hurt GOP at Polls reads a headline yesterday in the Washington Post. This was what Democrats thought would put Kerry into the White House two years ago. Will it work this year in Washington State?

The most recent Washington Post – ABC poll shows a 47% “strong disapproval” by voters of Bush’s job performance. Only 20% “strongly approve”. In comparison President Clinton’s highest “strong disapproval” rating was 37%.

Since Bush is not on the ballot, the best way for voters to show their anger at Bush is to vote his Republican Congressional cronies who have unflinchingly supported his policies out of office. By contrast in the 2002 midterm congressional elections, Bush had 42% of the voters “strongly approving” of him versus only 20% “strongly disapproving”. Democrats lost seats which was historically unusual.

The key is strength of passion- what motivates people to make that extra effort to vote.

Yet the issue for Congressional races turns more often on local candidates and issues. There have been very few seats turned over by incumbents over time. In fact the historical average has been that 98% of incumbents get reelected.

As Mark Mellman in The Hill suggests, this inertia to change can be affected by several things, including the past vote for Presidents.

The year 1994 was a big one for Republicans in Congress. Yet of the 34 seats the Democrats lost, the Republican Presidential candidate in the previous two elections had won 30. Likewise in the big change in 1982, 2/3 of the Republican incumbents who lost were in districts the Democratic Presidential candidate had won previously.

Mellman says that in this election cycle only 18 incumbent Republicans are in districts that Kerry won. By the way, one of these is the eighth Congressional District, where Darcy Burner, a Democrat is taking on first term incumbent Republican Dave Reickert.

While open seats can also be a factor, in years of major change it may not be as significant a factor. In 1992, only 37% of the seats the Democrats lost were open seats.

So certainly a lot rides on whether voters are rearing for a change. Unknowns that can change things quickly include changes in Iraq, like Bush withdrawing troops.

In addition factors in Washington state include emotional hotbutton issues like certain initiatives. The referendum to overturn the ban on gay discrimination and developer Initiative 933 to limit most zoning and growth management and Eyman’s Initiative 917 to cut transportation funding are all issues that pull out conservatives and Republicans.

Adam Nagourney writes in last Sunday’s New York Times that this is part of the Republican strategy. Entitled, “Looking to win in November, with a 2-year old Playbook” he notes that Carl Rove’s game plan in 2004 was to woo the religious right and other conservatives by appealing to their emotions. They did this successfully by a series of state initiatives to ban gay marriage coordinated with efforts to turn out church goers.

This year it may be tougher but Washington’s developer’s initiative 933 is not alone. Conservatives are also gathering signatures on similar initiatives on so called private property rights in California, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and Oregon (again) according to the NY Times.

And another issue is also rising – immigration. Democrats meanwhile are slow in using initiatives to increase turnout of their base. This year Washington state has one measure – Initiative 937 – the Energy Security Initiative to increase use of renewable energy that is collecting signatures to get on the ballot. Meanwhile with Eyman’s so called $30 tabs initiative 917, which reduces transportation funds; the developer initiative 933 – to end zoning as we know it; and the referendum to repeal the anti discrimination legislation passed by the Legislature, Democrats are having to wage three defensive efforts.

I think Democrats need to get more active and work to help set the agenda by running their own initiatives in the future, particularly in 2008 to help draw out the progressive base. They need to quit crying about the conservatives putting initiatives on the ballot and put their own on. Voters are not going to repeal the initiative process in Washington state. Put the conservatives on the defense.

Meanwhile Senator Cantwell, who has been running into criticism from some progressive activists need to engage them more. Because to win she needs to turn out motivated voters and right now there are too many being unreasonably purist in their criticism. But they are family, family she needs to win and that requires special efforts. And they need her to win if we want to stop the Bush Cheney railroading of America into just one giant corporation where we only have two classes, the superrich and the rest of us.

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