An early bad sign for Jean Goddens reelection: That candidate forum where she refused to answer yes-or-no questions.
An early bad sign for Jean Godden's reelection: That candidate forum in which she refused to answer yes-or-no questions. Josh Kelety

After last night's initial vote count, most of the city council incumbents appear to be doing just fine. Kshama Sawant is toeing the 50 percent line. Tim Burgess got 48 percent of the vote against two strong challengers (and one not-so-strong challenger). Bruce Harrell, Mike O'Brien, and Sally Baghsaw all led comfortably.

If you supported district elections because you thought they were going to flush everyone out of City Hall and populate the council with nine total newcomers, that's not exactly encouraging news. But there's one race where the new district system did its thing, even in the face of big money and an incumbent with good name recognition: District 4 in northeast Seattle.

Jean Godden, who's running in District 4, is the only incumbent council member who looks like she might not make it through to the general election in November. That's based on the first and only results we have so far; more will be announced later today.

Godden is trailing her two most formidable challengers, Michael Maddux and Rob Johnson. Johnson is a Seattle Times-endorsed transportation advocate. Maddux is a Stranger-endorsed parks and Democratic party advocate.

The first cracks in Godden's campaign began to show early on when she made lackadaisical appearances at candidate forums while Johnson and Maddux mounted increasingly impressive campaigns.

As the season wore on, two things happened that peeled support away from Godden.

First, some of her powerful past supporters defected to Johnson. The downtown chamber, Washington Conservation Voters, and the Seattle Times lined up behind Johnson. While Mayor Ed Murray endorsed Godden (while perplexingly crediting her for the minimum wage increase), plenty of his allies didn't.

"Third party credibility is really important in these primaries," says John Wyble, a political consultant who typically lines up opposite Murray's camp and is working for Maddux in this race, "and Jean just ran out of third party credibility... That gets really important in terms of defining who you are and Jean was just kind of left out of the mix."

Second, in the city's ongoing density debate—a meat grinder of people ready to crush you if you're not rabidly enough on their side—Godden opposed increased density in single family zones. As she and other candidates learned last night, that wasn't the way voters were feeling. For those voters who were worried about growth, they had an alternative. Godden may have opposed increased density, but she didn't do it quite as vocally and dramatically as neighborhood activist Tony Provine. (Of the bulldozer-coming-for-your-single-family-house mailer.) Provine only won about 14 percent of the vote, but it's likely some of his density-anxious supporters might have gravitated toward Godden if she'd been their only choice. To put that another way: Provine's failed candidacy may have succeeded in dooming Godden's candidacy.

Godden's campaign didn't appear prepared for any of this, counting heavily on voters who'd always supported her and knew her name well to support her again. This is not some personal analysis I've made up. This is what Godden herself said. "With the official suggestion that election turnout could be as low as 30 percent due to this summer sunshine," Godden wrote in a recent e-mail to supporters, "we could be looking at one of the oldest average election turnout[s] (over 62 years old)—and just voters who vote all the time. If that’s the case, chances are many of the voters in the August 4th primary will probably have voted for me many times in the past."

She also appeared out of touch or disinterested in the housing affordability concerns that have dominated this campaign. Neither her website's "issues" page nor her video voters' guide spot directly mentioned affordable housing. In forums, she often deferred to whatever would come out of the mayor's housing affordability committee. Then, when that committee released its report, Godden opposed its recommendation for more density in single family zones in order to help increase housing supply. (The mayor caved to neighborhood pressure and backed off this recommendation last week.)

In this race, it appears, districts played the role they were expected to. The system encouraged new candidates and made it easier for them to compete because they had to reach fewer voters to win. But that, on its own, wasn't enough. As Godden's supporters drifted away and her campaign remained stagnant on the big issues, her vulnerability became more and more apparent.

"I don’t think Jean’s been a lousy council member," Wyble says. "She hasn’t done anything people hate, but when the campaign came around people couldn’t find a good reason to vote for her. It wouldn't have taken much—just a couple little new ideas—and she might have gotten there. There was no new idea in that campaign."

I've requested comment from Godden's longtime campaign consultant, Cathy Allen. I'll update this post if I hear back.

The next batch of results will drop today at 4:30 p.m. Godden trails Maddux by less than 200 votes, so a reversal is possible. But if the conventional wisdom about late voters holds true—and our unbeatable measures of traffic do, too—then those late ballots are more likely to skew progressive. If so, that will mean more bad news for Godden.