Following a dramatic series of results in this year’s November local elections, Seattle city politics appears to have shifted decisively toward the right. In Seattle City Council Districts 2, 4 and 7, races were decided by several hundreds of votes out of electorates of more than 20,000 people. These results align the majority of city council with the more conservative, outwardly pro-police and business-friendly politics that Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell espouses.
However, this conservative trend was not uniform across Washington state. In King County, two progressive candidates, Teresa Mosqueda and Jorge Barón, won their elections to the county council, while in Spokane, Democrat Lisa Brown ousted Republican incumbent Mayor Nadine Woodward. In Burien — a suburb just south of Seattle that has been embroiled in a controversy over the city’s punitive approach to homelessness — the three progressive candidates lost to their more conservative opponents by double-digit margins.
This year’s elections also featured lower-than-average turnout levels. Across King County, 37.8% of voters participated in the elections, the lowest level in more than a decade. In Seattle, the turnout rate was a little higher at 46.5%. In 2019, the last election cycle in which the same city council seats were contested, 49.1% of voters across King County and 55.1% of voters in Seattle participated.
The disparity in turnout among age was also significant, as can be seen in the chart above. Only 17.2% of voters aged 18-24 participated in the election, compared to 57.3% of voters aged 65 and older. This is consistent with similar trends in the primary election and across elections. However, the age disparity is significantly larger this year than in even-year elections, when participation is generally much higher across the board.
The three Seattle City Council races can be grouped into roughly two categories: the three districts where incumbents faced off against corporate-backed challengers, and the four open races where the incumbent council members opted to retire from city politics.
In the Southeast Seattle District 2, Tammy Morales had been trailing her challenger Tanya Woo by about 9% on election night. However, as later-arriving ballots were counted the rest of the week, Morales came out ahead by just over 1.5% of the vote, or 405 ballots.
Historically, Seattle voters have tended to polarize around the endorsements of the two biggest newspaper editorial boards of The Stranger, which leans to the left, and The Seattle Times, which has an explicitly conservative orientation. On the whole, Stranger readers skew younger and tend to turn in their ballots later than Times subscribers.
A similar story to Morales’ played out in District 6, which contains Ballard and Magnolia. Centrist incumbent Councilmember Dan Strauss was trailing his slightly more conservative opponent Pete Hanning by about 2%. After all of the ballots were counted, Strauss won by more than 5%. Districts 2 and 6 were the only races to flip with the counting of later ballots after election night.
In District 7, which is mainly downtown Seattle and Queen Anne, voters dealt incumbent Councilmember Andrew Lewis an upset by electing his right-wing opponent Bob Kettle by a margin of about 2%, or 444 votes.
In the four open City Council seats, candidates who received independent expenditures from pro-business groups prevailed in all four races, however with vastly different margins. In North Seattle District 5, Cathy Moore won by a massive margin of nearly 30% over her more left-leaning opponent, ChrisTiana ObeySumner. West Seattle candidate Rob Saka also handily won in District 1 over Maren Costa with a lead of almost 3,000 votes, which translated to nearly 9%.
Over in District 3, which contains the Central District and Capitol Hill, the race proved somewhat close, with Joy Hollingsworth winning by a margin of 6%, or about 2,000, over Alex Hudson.
The tightest Seattle City Council race was for District 4, where Martiza Rivera won over her more progressive opponent Ron Davis by a slim margin of 237 votes, or about 0.8%.
The 2023 local elections mark a watershed moment for Seattle moderates and conservatives. While in 2019, candidates backed by Amazon and other corporate Political Action Committees (PACs) won only one out of seven council seats, this year they won five.
In total, right-leaning PACs raised and spent roughly $1.15 million in this year’s general election cycle. Some of them explicitly backed conservative Seattle City Council candidates while others attacked progressive candidates. Many were labeled with friendly monikers such as “neighbors committees.” Liberal-leaning PACs only spent about $150,000. Labor unions paid out just under $187,000 backing both progressive and centrist candidates.
The spending picture is not perfectly clear cut. Hanning did not receive any independent expenditures, despite being a right-leaning candidate. Meanwhile, Costa, Hudson and Strauss all received significant non-union PAC support, even though they are considered more liberal or progressive.
The 2023 election results will significantly shift the balance of power on the city council, though the exact details of how things will play out remain unclear. With socialist council member Kshama Sawant opting to not run for reelection, Morales will likely be the most progressive vote on the city council. She may be joined by Moore and Hollingsworth, who have both taken progressive policy stances on issues like taxation and sweeps. Strauss has positioned himself as a moderate, while Saka, Martiza and Kettle will join Councilmember Sara Nelson — who was not up for reelection this year — to form a clique of unabashedly conservative council members. The ninth seat is currently held by Mosqueda and will be replaced by an interim council member in January after she takes up her role on the county council. Given the makeup of the other eight council members, who will pick Mosqueda’s successor, it is safe to expect that seat will shift to the right.
While the new city council will not be uniformly right-wing, there is a solid majority of candidates who have the backing of Harrell or at least expressed support for many of his policies. A new era of right-leaning politicians holding power across all of Seattle’s important political offices — the city council, mayoralty and city attorney — has begun.
Read more of the Nov. 29–Dec. 5, 2023 issue.