Opinion

Democrats can thank pot and gay marriage | Bob Roegner

In February, gay couples celebrated the initial signing of the marriage bill by Gov. Christine Gregoire. - Mirror file photo
In February, gay couples celebrated the initial signing of the marriage bill by Gov. Christine Gregoire.
— image credit: Mirror file photo

The Democrats and Governor-elect Jay Inslee can thank marijuana and same-sex marriage, at least in part, for their election victory.

Early this year, Republicans were feeling very confident of winning the governor’s office and the state Senate. Republicans also thought they had a chance at winning the state House of Representatives.

In Rob McKenna, they had their best candidate for governor in several years. He had won two statewide races and ran above the Republican base in King County. Their base was energized in its opposition to President Obama, and picking up two Senate seats appeared likely.

Democratic leaders knew that enthusiasm for Obama had diminished among some key voting blocks because he hadn’t pushed on some liberal causes, and voter turnout was a major concern. Democrats needed to light a fire under their base. They found their match in marijuana, same-sex marriage, an impressive ground game, Inslee’s improved campaign and some tactical errors by the Republicans.

During the last legislative session, Democrats received some criticism when the Legislature passed same-sex marriage. Some were concerned that the issue would inflame the Republican right and cost the Democrats the election. At the same time, an  initiative was being circulated to put marijuana on the ballot.

The Democrats’ logic was that Republicans were so unhappy with the president that they will vote anyway. But with marijuana and same-sex marriage on the ballot, that could ensure a big Democratic turnout. They were right.

It turned out to be the smartest political move of the year. More people voted in the same-sex and marijuana category than voted for president or governor. While labor, teachers and others worked hard and could be counted on to go to the polls, the  move to get both items on the ballot was significant in getting other key voting groups to actually vote — including young people, who supported Obama and Inslee. Young people wanting to vote on legalizing pot? That shouldn’t be a shocker.

Also, McKenna made a critical mistake just before the primary. Up by 10-12 points in the polls, he let Inslee define himself, rather than try and put him away early with a media blitz. Inslee’s campaign came out with an impressive series of commercials. Inslee’s win in the primary gave him the credibility he needed, and then went on to win the election with 51 percent statewide and 62 percent in King County.  McKenna only received 38 percent of the vote in King County, where he needed to be closer to 43 percent. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney faired even worse in King County, as he got only 28 percent. That is the amount you automatically get for having “Republican” next to your name.

More than 35,000 people voted for McKenna and same-sex marriage, which is an odd combination given the traditional Republican viewpoint. McKenna out-polled Romney in King County and surprisingly, more than 72,000 people voted for Obama and McKenna.

The public was so attracted by the two hot button issues that there was a dropoff further down the ballot. The only Republican statewide winner was Kim Wyman for Secretary of State. But the dropoff in King County by more than 60,000 voters probably kept the Democrats from a clean sweep. Had those 60,000 people voted and simply split at the same percentage as the rest of King County, Democrat Kathleen Drew likely would have won.

The other side benefit of the turnout was that almost every local request for additional tax authority  passed. That includes the county’s fingerprint program and a levy to rebuild Federal Way High School.

The Democrats lost a couple of seats in the House, but retained control. The Senate is likely to be democratic in name only at 26-23 if Republican incumbent Don Benton holds off a major challenge down in Vancouver. It may go to a recount.

With a two-vote margin, conservative Democrats Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon come into play, and may again side with Republicans to give control of the Senate to the Republicans.

Until Governor-elect Inslee gets his staff and cabinet in place, the most powerful person in Olympia will be House Speaker Frank Chopp. But with a likely shortfall of $2 billion, a divided Senate and a new governor, Olympia is going to be a very chaotic place.

That was a fun election for writers.

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