Something remarkable happened on national television the morning after the 2022 midterm elections: pundits across the political spectrum openly condemned the Republican Party for its weaker-than-expected performance in the 2022 midterm elections.
In contrast to predictions of a “red wave,” Republicans only managed to flip about 15 seats in the House of Representatives, securing a razor-thin majority. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman secured a majority in the Senate for the Democrats by flipping his senate seat in a victory over TV doctor Mehmet Oz, even with the results of a December Georgia runoff election still pending.
In Washington state, the results were even better for liberals and progressives. Democrats scored a number of key victories, including securing Sen. Patty Murray’s reelection, electing a Democrat as Secretary of State for the first time since 1960 and flipping Washington’s 3rd Congressional District. In the state legislature, Democrats managed to expand their majorities. Current vote counts suggest that they will win another state Senate seat and at least one state House seat.
While preliminary results from the August primary foreshadowed this electoral triumph, many analysts believed that the Democratic Party was going to do much worse in the general. Historically, midterm elections serve almost as a protest vote against incumbent presidents. For example, Republicans flipped 63 seats in the House in 2010, and, in the 2014 midterms, they won nine Senate seats. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats retook control of the House, winning 41 seats. With factors such as the cost of living crisis and President Joe Biden’s negative approval ratings, many Republicans were surprised they didn’t do better.
According to Redistricting Justice Washington coordinator and data science student Andrew Hong, while multiple factors explain the Republican underperformance, the party’s embrace of an increasingly right-wing platform is a big reason.
“We’ve seen the Republican Party and the candidates that Republicans field drift farther to the right,” Hong said. “Washington state voters — swing voters, Republican voters in Washington — I don’t think are as conservative as in other places like Arizona, Wisconsin, Missouri, et cetera. As the Republican Party nationally has drifted right, I think they’ve lost ground with a lot of Washingtonians.”
“I think this has actually, especially when you look down-ballot, been the strongest election for the Democratic Party in Washington state since Obama was elected,” Hong said.
Crystal Fincher, a political consultant and host of the podcast Hacks and Wonks, said that the election results showed that voters support candidates who embody the diversity of their communities and run on progressive issues they care about.
“We actually saw in battleground districts across the state candidates who didn’t shy away from talking about some issues that even moderate Democrats were saying are risky to talk about like public safety or others,” she said.
“Those candidates, who were oftentimes younger, BIPOC, queer candidates, more diverse candidates than we’ve seen, [were] performing really well in races,” Fincher said.
Perhaps the most impressive win was auto mechanic Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez’s victory over far-right candidate Joe Kent in the 3rd Congressional District. In 2020, the relatively moderate Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler won the district by 13 points. However, after Trump-endorsed Kent primaried Herrera Beutler for her vote to impeach the former president, the race became more competitive, with some moderate Republicans turning off from Kent’s hard-right tendencies and toward Gluesenkamp Pérez.
Hong said the race was an example of the “candidate quality” phenomenon: while voters were dissuaded by Kent’s election-denying antics, Gluesenkamp Pérez’s rural, working-class bonafides proved appealing. Gluesenkamp Pérez won by more than 3,000 votes.
The biggest local election in the Seattle area was the race for the next King County Prosecuting Attorney. Outgoing prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s chief of staff, Leesa Manion, won the election by 57 percent of the vote, compared to her opponent Jim Ferrell’s 42 percent. While Manion is no lefty, progressives still hailed her victory as a win against the “tough on crime” rhetoric Ferrell espoused. Last year, Republican candidate Ann Davison narrowly beat abolitionist public defender Nicole Thomas Kennedy using that same playbook.
“We saw voters vote really conclusively in the direction of more holistic approaches to public safety that take into account addressing root causes, like mental health support, community, poverty ... all of that,” Fincher said. “That was encouraging — a real repudiation of extreme Republicanism.”
In addition to candidates, voters in the region also decided on a number of ballot measures. In Tukwila, an initiative to raise the city’s minimum wage to $19.06 in July 2023 for large employers won with more than 80 percent of the vote. The advocacy organization Transit Riders Union campaigned on the message that it didn’t make sense for Tuwkila’s minimum wage to be 17 percent less than it was across the street in SeaTac.
Voters also passed a number of electoral reforms. King County Charter amendment No. 1, a proposal to switch elections for county positions to even years, passed with 69 percent of the vote. King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci told Real Change in October that the measure was aimed at boosting turnout — and, in particular, youth turnout — which tends to be much higher on years that federal and state elections take place.
Such a change could have significant political ramifications by broadening the electorate due to ideological divides between generations. According to an exit poll published by CNN, the Democratic Party’s 28 percent lead among voters under 30 saved the party from collapse in the 2022 midterms.
Efforts by electoral reformers to implement ranked-choice voting (RCV) — a voting system that allows people to express a preference for multiple candidates and transfer their vote to their next choice should their first choice be eliminated — found mixed results in communities across Washington state.
In Clark and San Juan counties, voters rejected proposals to implement RCV by significant margins. However, across the Columbia River in Multnomah County, Oregon, a similar ballot measure was approved. In Portland, Oregon, voters also implemented a form of RCV to elect city commissioners.
Seattle voters got a chance to decide on not one but two different electoral reform proposals. In June, proponents of the voting system called approval voting managed to garner enough signatures to make it onto the November ballot. Backed by tech moguls such as now-disgraced ex-crypto billionaire Samuel Bankman-Fried, the initiative was very (and often confusingly) similar to RCV, except that instead of allowing voters to rank candidates in order of preference, voters would only be able to say yes or no to multiple candidates.
Because the Seattle City Council preferred RCV over approval voting, councilmembers decided to insert RCV as a second option on the ballot to give voters an opportunity to decide which voting system was best. In an awkwardly worded two-part question, voters decided first whether they wanted to change the electoral system, and, if so, which of the two new voting systems they preferred.
Seattle voters were deeply divided on the first question, with the pro-change side eking out a win by a few thousand votes. RCV proved far more popular than approval voting, winning by a whopping 51 percent margin.
Ben Chapman, the communications manager for Fair Vote Washington, one of the main organizations behind RCV organizing, told Real Change on election night that the results proved that voters wanted change.
“I think it’s absolutely clear to everybody that we do need change, and rank choice voting won’t solve every problem, but it’s a huge step in the right direction towards better elections,” he said.
Localities such as San Francisco, New York City, Maine and Alaska have all implemented RCV systems. It remains to be seen whether these changes will significantly impact the races for City Council, city attorney and the mayor in the future.
The election was not all happy news for progressives, however. Republicans still looked poised to take control of the House and made substantial gains in states such as Florida and New York. According to the election-tracking website Cook Political Report, Republicans won about 4 percent more of the popular vote than Democrats. In part, this may be due to Democrats not fielding candidates in states such as North and South Dakota, as well as lower turnout in some heavily blue urban districts. But some voters might also be drifting to the Republican Party.
In the three Washington counties whose populations are majority Latine — Adams, Franklin and Yakima — Sen. Patty Murray saw her vote share drop by 8.7, 8.8 and 6.0 percent compared to the reelection of her colleague Sen. Maria Cantwell in 2018.
Hong said that this could indicate that support for Democrats among some Latine communities is declining or that voters might not be enthusiastic about turning out for predominantly white Democratic candidates.
“Dulce Gutiérrez ran for Yakima County Commission,” he said. “She was the only Democratic local candidate running in Yakima County. Meanwhile, the Republicans fielded multiple Republican Latino candidates in Yakima County. I think that had an impact. The Democratic Party has not invested enough into Central Washington as they should, and the results of that is what we have today.”
Fincher cautioned Democrats that there are Republicans who are organizing in communities of color and immigrant communities. She said that communities of color are not a monolith and that it’s not enough for candidates to have endorsements from individuals who happen to be from a community — they have to also do deep outreach.
Fincher also said that the midterm election results show that Democrats should not prioritize whiter, affluent suburbs at the expense of the racially and ethnically diverse working class.
“We saw candidates succeed who actually reflect the diversity of the working class and who were able to speak to it. And those candidates actually did a better job of turning them out,” Fincher said.
King County Elections estimates it still had about 56,000 ballots left to count as of Nov. 15. Final results will be certified on Nov. 29.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Nov. 16-22, 2022 issue.