A State Divided: As Washington Becomes More Liberal, Republicans Push Back

New liberal laws and a new senate coalition illustrate the stark east-west divide in Washington state

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Tony Overman / The Olympian / Getty Images

Same-sex couple celebrates receiving their marriage license in Olympia, Wash., on Dec. 6, 2012.

When Washington Republican state senator Bob Morton went to Olympia in 1991, he had one goal: divide the state in two. The first time he sponsored a bill to that effect, he says the committee chair thought it was a joke. The chair scheduled a hearing, thinking the bill would be laughed off. “After two paragraphs of testimony, you could hear a pin drop,” Morton said. “It doesn’t take much more than a paragraph to realize we have a problem here.” 

The problem Morton refers to is the stark divide between conservative east Washington and the liberal west. Morton, a Methodist minister, hails from the former, where Seattle is a dirty word. The district he represented for more than 20 years, before retiring in January, is tucked in the northeastern corner of the state—any further and it’d be in Idaho.

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It’s not just geography that separates the two sides—it’s everything. Roughly two-thirds of Washington state residents live on the wealthier, urban west side of the state, which is home to Microsoft, Amazon and the state’s largest public research university. With the exception of Spokane, the 10 largest cities in the state are all located in western Washington. The east side is rural, and its major industries are  farming and lumber. “We talk about a boat in eastern Washington, we’re talking about a row boat with a set of oars on it that we take fishing on the little lakes,” Morton said. “If you talk about a boat in western Washington, you’re talking about a yacht.”

To outsiders, Washington might seem to be among the most liberal states in the union. In last November’s election, the state legalized marijuana for recreational use and approved same sex marriage. Its residents have voted for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since 1988. (In November, Barack Obama won 56.2% of the vote.) Washington elected a Democratic governor in November—as it has for most of the last 30 years. And only one Republican was elected to statewide office: Secretary of State-elect, Kim Wyman. “This is a time to be happy and free, and to be overwhelmed with a sense of our own accomplishment,” wrote Paul Constant, in a post-election column headlined “WE WON!!!” in Seattle’s alt-weekly, The Stranger.

But while Seattleites were overjoyed at the results, the election delivered a blow to Republicans living in eastern Washington. They never expected the state to swing in favor of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, but they put quite a lot of stock in the Republican candidate for governor, former attorney general Rob McKenna. “We didn’t do as well as we’d hoped,” said U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican. “We really thought we had an opportunity with Rob McKenna, but he came up short.”

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The faith Republicans had in McKenna’s chances wasn’t unrealistic. In 2004, Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, won by only 133 votes out of the 2.8 million cast. Newly elected Gov. Jay Inslee, a former Democratic congressman, carried only eight of 39 counties. All of those counties just so happen to be located within 100 miles of Seattle. “I’ve heard people say, you can stand on top of the Space Needle and see all the votes you need to get to win an election in the state,” said Scott Roberts, citizen action network director at the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based conservative think tank.

Roberts recently visited eastern Washington as part of the group’s post-election “Free WA Tour.” He often jokingly asked in his speech whether anyone was on suicide watch. “People did seem defeated,” he said. “They feel like they are beholden to the desires of Seattle.” While support for marijuana legalization was scattered throughout the state, just one county east of the Cascade Mountains supported same-sex marriage. In the first 24-hours after same-sex marriage took effect on Dec. 6, more than 450 couples applied for licenses in King County, where Seattle is located; by contrast, in Stevens County, a county in Bob Morton’s legislative district, nobody asked for a license on the first day. “That’s a good illustration of the difference in our philosophy and our basic beliefs,” Morton said.

McMorris Rodgers said the constituents in her district, which is essentially the eastern third of the state, differ from those who live on the west side of the state not just in terms of social issues, but in terms of water and land-use policy, transportation policy, health care policy and more. “The people I represent are more independent—they want to feel empowered to make decisions that they think are best for themselves and for their families,” she said. “They don’t like the federal government or the state government interfering with their ability to make those decisions and so they get offended sometimes when thepeople who live in the greater Seattle area enforce their values on those of us who live in eastern Washington.”

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Morton never succeeded in creating two Washingtons, but his party has managed to split power in the state house. In an effort to give people outside of Seattle a larger voice, two Democrats joined Republicans in December to form a 25-24 majority coalition in the state senate. Sen. Mark Schoesler, the state’s Republican leader, who represents a district that includes a series of small cities to the south and west of Spokane, says the coalition will focus on the budget, jobs and education. “We want to bring the state back to the basic priorities,” he said. “I think we should be looking at our business climate before we look at banning plastic bags.”

Sen. Rodney Tom, who represents parts of eastern King County and is one of the two Democrats to join the GOP coalition, says he hopes to restore balance. “If you look at what had transpired when the Senate Democrats were running the show, 60-70% of the committee chairs were out of Seattle,” he says. “How representative is that?”

The Senate coalition will still have to contend with the state’s House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats 55 to 43. But Washington’s new Senate coalition can live with that. “We can’t do anything crazy and neither can they,” says Tom, who became majority leader on Jan. 14. “It protects us from Democrats from Seattle getting in a room, drinking the same Kool-Aid and driving us off a cliff.”

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