I woke up this morning feeling like a lot of things happened last night but also that nothing really changed.
King County Elections estimates that turnout for the primary will end up somewhere around 34-36%. (We're currently at 33%.) Turnout in 2017 was 34%. A couple incumbents are in some serious trouble—I'm looking at you, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes and 19-year Republican incumbent King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert—but otherwise none of the real or simply self-described "change agents" are leading, at least not among the earliest primary voters.
All that said, with half the ballots still left to count, making sweeping generalizations about how the city or county "feels" seems unwise. But with that said, let's discuss some of the things we can say about the city elections.
Seattle voters picked the candidates they knew.
When I look at Nikkita Oliver and Sara Nelson making it through to the general, or Ann Davison and Nicole Thomas-Kennedy doing well in the City Attorney's race, or the poor showings from Colleen Echohawk and Jessyn Farrell, I want to repeat some cliche about polarization and primary electorates. The lefty progressives and the Safe Seattle dorks came out! The candidates who positioned themselves as a middle between two extremes within their fields—Brianna Thomas, Pete Holmes—aren't looking good on election night. But candidates muddied the ideologically picture. Every candidate presented themselves as a "progressive," and Nelson touted her support "across the political spectrum" in her mailers.
Stylistically, as the Stranger Election Control Board mentioned in its endorsements, an anti-Seattle City Council narrative dominated campaign messaging. "Everyone hates the city council!" "Worst wrong-track numbers I've ever seen!" "This is a change electorate!" And yet, as the Seattle Times's Danny Westneat argued last night, and as The Stranger has been arguing all the while, primary voters at least don't appear to be that pissed at the council.
The top two mayoral candidates both served on the council. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda is running at 55%. Even Nelson, who came in 3rd in the 2017 citywide city council primary, worked as a council aide under former Councilmember Richard Conlin—a fact she didn't hide on the trail, such as it was. Meanwhile, Farrell and Echohawk and Casey Sixkiller and Art Langlie—who spent their entire campaigns dunking on the council—chalked up single-digit results.
The recent polling made it look as if Seattle was prepared to pick the people with whom it was familiar, and, lo and behold, incumbents did well across the board—with the exception of Pete Holmes and Kathy Lambert. (I suspect few people know much about the role of the city attorney, which led voters to rely more heavily on endorsements from The Stranger and the Seattle Times. And I guess the changing demographics on the Eastside finally caught up with Lambert.)
Having previous elected experience—even if that experience included long terms of service on the ~unpopular~ and ~reviled~ Seattle City Council—appeared to win over voters. With lots of change happening all around them, these people went with the names they knew.
Lorena González will fight an uphill battle.
Again, this dynamic could change some, but González running nine points behind Bruce Harrell recalls Jenny Durkan running against Cary Moon in 2017.
This is admittedly kind of dumb given all the caveats we've already discussed, and because general electorates are different from primary electorates, but if you add up the votes shares of actual progressives and the votes of corporate Dems who tried to pass themselves off as progressives, and you split Jessyn Farrell's vote between Harrell and González, you get 54% to 43% in November. Durkan beat Moon in the general 55.6% to 43%.
González, who has won citywide twice before, will campaign better than Moon did, and will likely spend plenty of time and money drawing a contrast between Harrell's corporate simping and her drive to tax big business to pay for the social services the city needs. That messaging worked for city council members in 2019, but only after Amazon very publicly tried to buy the elections. That's not going to happen this year, so that contrast might not be as animating come November.
Democracy Vouchers do not necessarily translate to votes.
The city's campaign public finance program, which mayoral candidates got to use this year for the first time since the program's inception, worked to raise the profiles of first-time candidates who otherwise may not have drawn a lot of attention.
Andrew Grant Houston and Colleen Echohawk, who both hit the program's $400,000 fundraising cap early on, scored plenty of coverage and ran pretty strong and highly visible campaigns; though much of Houston's campaigning focused on the digital world, while Echohawk leaned into a more traditional mix of TV and mailers and yard signs. Despite all that, neither candidate cracked double digits. AGH pulled in 2,288 votes and 4,292 vouchers from individuals, whereas Echohawk pulled in 7,349 votes and 4,060 vouchers from individuals. Overall, AGH brought in over 5,500 donors and Echohawk brought in over 5,900. For contrast, about 5,700 people contributed to González's campaign, whereas 3,350 contributed directly to Harrell's—though that doesn't account for the significant number of people who contributed to the independent expenditure committees that spent lots of money on behalf of both candidates.
These relatively low and uneven showings suggest that the speed at which a candidate acquires the maximum number of Democracy Vouchers isn't a reliable indicator of success, though it is one way to get talked about, which is part of the point of the program.
We're going to have a big talk about misdemeanors.
The City Attorney's race basically remains a three-way tie, with Republican Ann Davison leading by two points and abolitionist Nicole Thomas-Kennedy trailing Holmes by a smidge. No matter what happens here, this race will lead to guaranteed conflict and thus draw lots of media attention right on up to the general.
If NTK and Holmes make it through—which, again, could be possible given NTK's Stranger endorsement and Holmes's last-minute decision to actually start running a campaign—then the city will have an interesting conversation about whether we need to prosecute as many misdemeanors as we currently do. If NTK and Davison get through, the city will have a conversation about whether to abolish the criminal justice system or whether to lock up that person who draws anti-SPD sidewalk chalk graffiti. If Davison and Holmes get through, Holmes will likely win the KOMO radical vs the "steady hand at the wheel" race that would inevitably ensue. Either way, the city will have a big, long, and contentious talk about whether we need to lock 'em up.