In the past decade, the difference between Democrats and Republicans in Washington’s congressional primaries has been within five points or fewer of the partisan gap in the general election in 26 of 37 opportunities. Moreover, the party that led in the primary also won the seat in the general every time.
That track record is why the state’s recent primary results are so important. With more than 99 percent of the votes counted, Republicans have a higher share of the total vote than they did in 2018 in eight of the state’s 10 congressional districts. (Both seats where they have declined are in ultraprogressive Seattle.) That alone would suggest that Republicans in the state will fare better in November than they did in the midterms two years ago, even though the national polls suggest they will not.
A deeper dive yields even more positive news for the GOP. Republican candidates exceeded their 2018 vote share by 5 points or more in the five seats that don’t include parts of Seattle’s King County or its major suburb, Snohomish County. That indicates the GOP is gaining a lot of support over 2018 in the same kind of rural and small metro areas across the country that helped elect Trump in 2016 and allowed the party to flip Senate seats in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota in 2018. If Washington’s pattern applied nationwide, it would mean Trump would be much more competitive in swing states such as Wisconsin and North Carolina than the polls currently show.
This positive trend even applies to the state’s potentially marginal seats. The Democratic Congressional Committee includes Carolyn Long, their nominee in Washington’s 3rd District, on its “Red to Blue” list, which features the party’s best candidates with a chance to flip a seat. But the Republican incumbent, Jaime Herrera Beutler, smashed Long in the primary, 56 to 40 percent.
The trend is even scarier for first-term Democratic Rep. Kim Schrier. In 2018, she flipped the historically Republican 8th District, which combines upper-income Seattle suburbs with rural counties on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. Her win was forecast by the Democrats’ 50 to 47 lead in the 2018 primary. This year, the Republican candidates combined lead her and two other minor Democrats by 49 to 47. Recall that no party in the past decade has won a House seat in November that it lost in the primary. Schrier is listed as either safe or likely to win by the leading political prognosticators, but those ratings should surely change based on Washington’s clear historical patterns.
Democrats cannot claim that the results are skewed by GOP-friendly turnout. About 2.5 million people voted in the Aug. 4 primary, shattering records for previous primaries. That represents more than 75 percent of the 3.3 million Washingtonians who voted in the 2016 presidential election, a record high. Even with a high turnout in November, a big majority of general-election voters will have already indicated their partisan preference.
These results do confirm some of the electoral news that has depressed national Republican leaders. GOP support in Seattle and its suburbs remains mired at the already low 2018 levels. That does not bode well for GOP efforts to regain many of the House seats they lost across the country in the midterms and further suggests that Democratic efforts to flip more suburban seats might succeed. Trump’s reelection efforts also would be benefited by even a slight upturn in his suburban fortunes.
The Republican surge in rural and small-metro Washington, however, suggests that Trump and GOP House and Senate candidates across the country could surprise the pundits again. Nine of the House GOP’s top Democratic target seats have at least substantial portions of voters who live in rural and small-town areas. Key Senate targets in Maine, Montana, North Carolina and Georgia have similar profiles. Trump could also be saved by an uptick in support in these areas.
One should never draw sweeping conclusions from a single data point. But the Washington primary results hint that something may be happening below the radar and the polls aren’t picking it up.