2002: Why so many races lack competition
By David Postman
October 13, 2002
When Washington voters go to the polls next month they will face
the slimmest pickings in 30 years as nearly one in three legislative
candidates runs unopposed and is guaranteed victory.
The trend has
been building, and this year even some first-time candidates get a
clear path to office in the 36 one-sided races among 122 state House
and Senate seats up for election. In another six races, Democrats or
Republicans are challenged only by third-party candidates, which
historically has meant automatic election.
Washington politics is suppressed by powerful incumbents, new
political boundaries, reluctant candidates and a hardening
regionalism that has broken up large chunks of the state into
partisan protectorates ruled by the two major parties.
"We're left with a deeply divided political landscape
with very few truly competitive districts," said Democratic
political consultant Christian Sinderman.
Though party leaders and
elected officials often lament public apathy toward politics and low
voter turnout, in many places around the state they aren't giving
people much reason to go to the polls.
"It's unhealthy for the
system," said Secretary of State Sam Reed. "It helps to have
competitive districts and make candidates stand up and defend their
positions and be responsive to the public."
Lawmakers elected from
solidly safe districts have less incentive to compromise, said
University of Washington political science Professor Bryan Jones.
Homogenous districts add to the polarization of the political
"If you send a bunch of ideologues to the Legislature,
they would rather go back and grandstand to their constituency than
compromise," Jones said.
Republicans have all but given up Seattle.
Democrats have done the same across much of Eastern Washington.
With the high cost of running competitive races, party leaders on
both sides say it makes little sense to field candidates in
For both parties, recruiting candidates might
be more difficult this year because of the huge problems facing the
state - record budget deficits, a deepening recession, chaotic
transportation problems and the possibility of extra-long
"Who would want to have to go deal with what
the Legislature is having to face right now?" asked David Groves,
spokesman for the Washington State Labor Council.
campaigns and partisan swings in the 1980s and mid-1990s, Washington
has reached political stasis. With the state House and Senate held
by Democrats by the closest of margins, it's unlikely there will be
more than minor adjustments in the balance of power this year.
The lack of competition in Washington
reflects national trends. According to Charlie Cook, a leading
congressional analyst, only 39 of 435 U.S. House races are
considered competitive this year.
The once-a-decade redrawing of
political boundaries is often cited as a factor.
legislative and congressional districts are drawn by a bipartisan
And "the inevitable effect is always to maximize
incumbent protection," said Richard Morrill, University of
Washington professor emeritus of geography. He served as a
court-appointed special master to help draw redistricting plans
before the current commission system was created two decades ago.
When Morrill was drafting districts under court supervision, he was
prevented by a federal judge from getting input from the political
parties or knowing where incumbents lived. Now the parties and
incumbents stay in close contact with their party representatives on
the bipartisan commission that redraws election districts after each
Today, after a year of studying maps and drawing lines, the
political parties, candidates and consultants know where their
strengths are in the playing field.
"It wasn't meant to be level,
at least not level everywhere," said Stan Shore, a consultant for
Senate Republicans. "Each caucus knows where they think they have
the lay of the land to their advantage, and they are putting money
in those locations."
There are two Republicans running for
legislative seats within the city limits of Seattle. Neither got
many votes in the September primary, and party officials give them
little chance of winning.
George W. Bush got 20 percent of the vote
in Seattle in 2000.
"The Republican vote in Seattle has just
cratered," said Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance. "We just
can't find anybody who is willing to go out and run, knowing they
are going to lose in the city of Seattle."
Once again - the divide
Vance said some Republicans are frustrated by the retreat from the
"They say, 'Well, if we just try harder.' You know what?
Politics is not football," he said. "It doesn't matter how good a
campaign a Republican runs in Seattle. The overwhelming majority of
people in Seattle don't agree with us. They aren't going to vote for
us. They shouldn't vote for us."
Currently there are four
Democratic legislators from Eastern Washington, three from the same
liberal, downtown Spokane district.
State Democratic Party Chairman
Paul Berendt used to try to find a Democrat to run in every Eastern
"I grew up in Pend Oreille County, so this is
something near and dear to me," said Berendt, whose father was a
Democratic county commissioner.
Democrats made gains east of the
mountains during the 1980s, but "it was always swimming against the
tide," he said.
Then came the 1994 election, when Democrats ran
into what Berendt calls a Republican "buzz saw." By pounding
Democrats on issues such as gun control, gay rights, abortion and
the environment, Berendt said, the Republicans stole away much of
Democratic Party's blue-collar support in Eastern Washington.
"Things have never been the same since," he said.
Democrats tried an Eastern Washington comeback in 1996 but fell
flat. Now, he acknowledged, the Democrats do not make a big effort
to recruit candidates there - largely because it has become
impossible for Democrats to raise the kind of money needed to run
Vote returns show how difficult it is for
Democrats over there and Republicans over here.
"As a consequence,
very few people want to go out and be a sacrificial lamb," said
Reed, the secretary of state. "Why waste a year of your life? Why
waste the money of your friends and family?"
But even in what
appear to be competitive districts, the parties didn't always field
For instance, in two key suburban King County districts
where there were open seats, the Democrats have no one on the
ballot. Berendt said that happened only because his candidates
dropped out late and the party was unable to find replacements.
don't understand that," said Jones, the UW professor. "It would seem
to me the parties would want to contest those districts rather than
playing only to the faithful choir."
With so many uncontested
races, special-interest groups are able to focus extra attention on
the few races that are competitive.
Groves said the labor council
has hired volunteer coordinators to help with campaigns in 17
districts this year.
"In a perfect world, we'd have 49 competitive
districts and volunteers in each of those," said Groves. "But it's
never going to make sense for us to have a volunteer coordinator in
There are opponents
in all of Washington's nine congressional races this year. But so
far that hasn't created much sense of competition. This could be the
first year since 1990 that there will be no turnover in the
In 1994, Washington voters awarded seven of its nine
congressional seats to the newly elected GOP majority, a swing so
notable former House Speaker Newt Gingrich proclaimed Washington
state "ground zero of the Republican revolution."
revolution brewing this year.
Berendt said it's not worth the party
spending a lot of money on races it knows it can't win. Candidates
don't always understand. Berendt said that Craig Mason, a Democrat
running against U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, in the 4th
Congressional District is angry that more party money hasn't been
sent his way.
"He thinks I'm stomping on the oxygen hose," Berendt
The most competitive race appears to be Republican Norma
Smith's challenge to freshman Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, in
northwest Washington's 2nd Congressional District. While national
Republicans may send money to help Smith, as of the end of August
Larsen had more than 12 times the cash, and national analysts do not
list Larsen as a vulnerable incumbent.
Congressional scholar Norm
Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute agrees redistricting
has protected incumbents, here and across the country.
states, the parties work out their own little marriage of
convenience," he said. "We'll protect our incumbents, you protect
Then there is the cost of campaigning. To run a
competitive House campaign against an incumbent, a candidate needs
$700,000 to $1 million in urban districts and $300,000 to $500,000
in less urban areas - a full-time fund-raising job.
itself is huge," Ornstein said. "It is a daunting obstacle for all
except a limited number of people."
And it may just not be much fun
to run against a well-financed incumbent.
"You go in knowing they
are going to strip the bark off of you," Ornstein said
Incumbents without competition still rake in the money.
Information from staff
reporters Ralph Thomas and Katherine Pfleger is included in this