OLYMPIA — When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in late June, it delivered a long-sought political victory for Republicans. It also generated a swell of electoral optimism for Democrats.
In the Aug. 2 election, an unexpected surge of ballots cast by voters who typically sit out primaries pushed turnout to higher than predicted levels across Snohomish and Island counties. They showed up because of the decision and mostly cast ballots for Democrat candidates, said members of both parties who had reviewed results.
Republican strategists didn’t anticipate the magnitude of Democrat enthusiasm. As a result GOP candidates never swayed from talking about public safety and the rising cost of living, subjects the party’s polling showed voters to be most concerned about. But those polls came before the controverial high court ruling.
Now, the GOP is scouring data and conducting surveys to discern what to expect in November’s general election when the party still hopes to gain seats in the state Legislature.
“Republicans did not address the abortion issue because it was a nonstarter,” said Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, referring to those early year polls. “What transpired was lots of people who were passionate on the issue, independent and Democrat, showed up and voted. We got it wrong and we need to change.”
The environment started evolving in May with the leaked draft opinion of Justice Samuel Alito foreshadowing the eventual outcome.
Until then, rising gas prices, inflation, and concerns about crime coupled with Democrat President Joe Biden’s abysmal approval ratings fueled talk of a “red wave” of Republican wins in state and federal races, both in Washington and across the country. Republicans were clearly enthused, Democrats not so much.
But the leaked opinion re-ignited a national debate on abortion rights. That sparked Democrats and their allies to inject it into the dialogue with voters.
Then, on June 24, the Supreme Court issued the ruling that erased federal protections for abortion and said states should set their own rules.
Nothing is changing in this state anytime soon.
Voters, in 1971, approved an initiative declaring a woman has a right to choose a physician-performed abortion prior to fetal viability. And Democrats currently control the levers of power in Washington with majorities in the state House and Senate, and the governor’s office. Gov. Jay Inslee has called for amending the state constitution to fortify existing protections.
Still, Democrats warn things can change. They point to states where Republicans hold majorities and are eliminating access as a cautionary tale of what could happen here.
The conversation moved away from former President Donald Trump to the Republican Party of today, said Crystal Fincher, owner of a political consulting firm whose clients include the state Democratic Party and Washington Education Association.
People began to feel their rights could be taken “in a way that is much more present and real,” she said. “They could see this is actually a threat and I need to actually vote so this doesn’t come here to Washington state.”
Tina Podlodowski, chair of the state Democratic Party, said Democrat women voters showed up, including those who tend to skip primaries. She estimated 10,000 more women cast ballots than men in Snohomish County.
“This idea that something was being taken away from women took hold,” she said. “I’ve never seen this in an election cycle to this level. It was happening throughout (Snohomish) County.”
These enthused Democrats made the difference.
“Elections are about turnout. The enthusiasm gap was one of the key failings for Republicans,” said Randy Pepple, longtime Republican consultant.
Turnout reached 37.3% in Snohomish County — a couple points higher than election officials predicted. It is nearly 52% in Island County.
That’s where Rep. Dave Paul, D-Oak Harbor, is battling for a third term in the 10th Legislative District, one of the state’s few swing districts. He’s won twice by narrow margins. Two years ago he finished second in the primary but won the general election by roughly 750 votes.
In this month’s election, Paul got 54.2% against a well-funded Republican opponent, Karen Lesetmoe. As he campaigned, he said people cited their concerns about public safety, the rising cost of living, and the court ruling.
“There’s no doubt in my mind the Supreme Court decision woke Democrats up,” he said. “Not just the decision but the opinion that came with it. It put abortion and reproductive rights and the right to privacy front and center.”
With the hierarchy of concerns unlikely to change, Republican chances of unseating incumbents like Paul may rest in how they address abortion.
“Candidates have to be true to their beliefs,” said Caleb Heimlich, chair of the state Republican Party. “My advice is to listen to the voters and to the people in the district and to represent them.”
He pushed back on those who contend Republican lawmakers in Washington will repeal protections at their first opportunity.
“Republicans respect the will of the voters…and are not inclined to ignore or overturn a citizen-approved initiative,” he said, referring to the 1971 measure. “I have not heard of any Republican candidate seeking to drastically change that.”
Muzzall, who’s helping steer the Senate caucus political operation this cycle, said “a fair number” of pro-life Republicans like himself “would never vote to take away a right. That’s my feeling.”
Heimlich remains confident his party will gain legislative seats, even if it doesn’t retake the majority.
In primaries, the most partisan voters tend to participate, he said. This fall, a lot more folks will cast ballots. They will tend to be more independent and, he hopes, less driven to choose candidates based on a single issue.
“I think we’re in a prime spot for the next 90 days,” he said.
Podlodowski said the outlook for Republicans isn’t good. Passion stirred by the decision isn’t subsiding among Democrats. And she predicted that money might be an issue after GOP forces spent big against Democrat lawmakers — and those incumbents still won handily.
“They don’t have the money to continue at that pace,” she said. “And the money they spent didn’t deliver dividends.”
Muzzall said money is not “a huge issue.”
“Our problem is getting a message out there that let’s people know that we are not going to take away abortion and we’re going to address challenges facing Washington families like high taxes and crime.”