America’s Pacific Northwest is synonymous with liberalism. Environmentalism, granola girls, public land, and marijuana legalization all come to mind when Americans think of the region. The states of Washington and Oregon haven’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Reagan’s 49-state landslide in 1984. Neither state has elected a Republican governor since the 1980s, with Washington having the longest streak of Democratic governors in the nation at 40 years and counting. Yet the region has an overlooked section of political battlegrounds, and perhaps a path forward for the modern GOP.
The 2016 Election in the Region
At first glance, Trump was destroyed in both states. He lost Washington by 16 points and only received a paltry 39% of the vote. Oregon is a similar story, with Trump losing by 11 points, again with 39%. Despite his losses, the maps show plenty of warning signs for Democrats.
Perhaps most apparent is the disparity on the western coasts of both states. Despite losing both states by a similar margin as Mitt Romney, Trump flipped five counties in Western Washington (Cowlitz, Pacific, Grays Harbor, Mason, and Clallam) and two in Western Oregon (Tillamook, and Columbia).
These counties are largely white working class and excluded from the massive growth of the Seattle and Portland metros. Here, the timber, commercial fishing, and tourism industries dominate. Starbucks, Boeing, Amazon, and Nike are a world away, and it shows. While former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton improved in and around the metropolitan areas of Seattle and Portland, she drastically under-ran Barack Obama along the coast.
Perhaps the best examples of this transformation are Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Tillamook. These regions both stand as industrial and shipping centers for the northwest. Cities like Aberdeen and Longview-Kelso dominate the trade of the Columbia River and Grays Harbor. Tillamook, for its part, has a huge presence in commercial fishing and Pacific coast trade.
Similar to many white working class areas that Trump won in 2016 (Eastern Iowa, Northern Minnesota, Southern Colorado), these areas used to be the beating heart of the Democratic Party. Walter Mondale won them,excluding Tillamook, even as Reagan won the states en route to his landslide win. Both continued to vote loyally Democratic into the 21st century. Even in tight races, such as the 2004 gubernatorial race and the 2010 Senate race, Grays and Cowlitz Counties remained firmly in the blue column.
In 2012, Obama received 51% of the vote in Cowlitz and nearly 56% in Grays Harbor. Four years later, Clinton received a mere 38% of the vote in Cowlitz and 41% of the vote in Grays Harbor.
What’s Driving the Shift?
Trump’s economic message resonated here and Clinton’s didn’t. While much may be said of Trump’s behavior, these areas feel left behind by new age liberalism and urban growth. The booming Seattle suburbs mean less than nothing if regulations destroy Aberdeen fishing. Portland riots and burning streets look like a massive flashing warning sign to Longview residents.
These concerns are valid and should be addressed by Democrats, not sneered at with groans of “those deplorables”. The rioting, gun control initiatives, and BLM protests have the potential to drive former supporters away.
Keeping it Going
The 2020 primary also showed some strong enthusiasm from Washington’s conservative base. Thought to be vulnerable, Jaime Herrera Beutler dominated with 56% in the primary for the 3rd district while freshman Democrat Kim Schrier was held to a meager 43% in the 8th district. While some of this GOP strength can be attributed to turnout, Republicans can still smell blood and the chance to solidify dominance along the Pacific coast.
Of course, there are still big differences between counties despite their similar working-class nature. Trump’s 51.3% in Cowlitz is far different than his 46.4% in Clallam, despite winning both. Of the seven counties Trump flipped in the region, only in Cowlitz did he break 50%.
Indeed, the 2018 midterms showed Democrats could regain some, if not all ground lost in the region. Three-term incumbent Senator Maria Cantwell flipped Pacific and Clallam back to the blue column while coming close in Cowlitz, Mason, and Grays Harbor. This was despite underperforming her usual blowouts, only winning by 17%. Republicans now wonder if they will be able to replicate Trump’s performance in future elections.
The GOP’s top targets in the region will be Washington’s 19th Legislative District and Oregon’s 5th Senate District. Both areas span large sections of the Pacific Coast and have multitudes of Obama-Trump areas. The 19th in particular saw a strong GOP performance in Washington’s August Primary.
What Does this Mean for 2020 and the Future?
While there are several competitive counties in Washington and Oregon, neither state will be competitive at the presidential level. While the Trump campaign has made noise about competing in Oregon, both the Seattle and Portland metros are just too big, and too blue, for either state to reasonably flip. To have any chance at statewide victories, a Republican would need far better numbers in counties such as Clackamas, Washington, and King that have zoomed left in the Trump era.
Biden has also led Trump consistently in most major polls. He seems likely to reverse at least some of Clinton’s losses with older, predominately white working class Americans. The high rates of third party voting in 2016 seems likely to drastically decrease as well, with less visible Libertarian and Green parties. According to the latest poll from King-TV and Survey USA, Biden leads by 34 points in Washington. While this number can, and likely will change, neither of these states is flipping red in 2020.
So while a Republican may not be able to win statewide in either WA or OR currently, the possibilities for legislative and congressional victories are more fruitful. Republicans held control of the Washington State Senate as recently as 2017. In Oregon, the 4th congressional district was nearly won by Trump; Republicans have nominated Alek Skarlatos, known for stopping a terrorist attack in Paris, to face off with entrenched Democratic incumbent Peter DeFazio. Statewide victories remain primarily out of reach, but there is plenty of new turf for Republicans to build upon in the white working class Pacific Northwest.