The Way I See It

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The challenger for the Port Commissioner District 1 seat, John Blethen, has an uphill race ahead of him.
John is certainly to be congratulated for an excellent showing in the primary. And although the election results won’t be certified until early September, unofficial results show he gathered about 52% of the votes cast, to Scott Walker’s 35%. Is this an indication of an insurmountable lead for Blethen? Perhaps not. Prior election history and demographic analysis of this year’s primary results may offer some clues.

Walker comes from behind in 2001.
Challenger Dan Warner out-polled Walker by 8 percentage points, 41 to 33, in the District 1 primary. The primary turnout was relatively low, 26%, compared to this year’s 27%. The general election turnout was also low at 45%. But in the general election, Walker prevailed easily over Warner, 56% to 44%. Part of this reversal was likely attributable to the difference in demographics between primary and general elections in Whatcom County. District 1 primaries are dominated by the vote in Bellingham, whereas the general election is county-wide.

The 2005 District 1 primary showed 70% of the vote coming from Bellingham.
In that primary Tip Johnson was almost even with Walker in the Bellingham vote, but lost in county precincts by a whopping 20 points. That same pattern held in the general election with Walker winning overall in a landslide by 20 points, but only by 3 points in Bellingham. Interestingly, county and small city voters cast 60% of the total vote in the general. Voter turnout in the primary was 28%, and in the general, 62%. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the last two elections for Port Commissioner District 1, being even or having a modest lead hasn’t been nearly enough to prevail against a strong small city/county vote.

Blethen’s margins are better than past challengers.
This year’s primary had a turnout consistent with 2001 and 2005 at 27%. In the Port Commissioner District 1 race, Blethen dominated in Bellingham and split the county vote with Walker. Blethen clearly has done better than Tip Johnson did in the 2005 primary and Warner did in 2001. Even with historical differences in the margins, the voting patterns are quite similar.

In the overall County Council At-large race, Bill Knutzen out-polled Laurie Caskey-Schreiber this year, 45.5% to 44%.
In District 1, the story is different. Caskey-Schreiber‘s margin over Knutzen in Bellingham District 1 was 4 points larger than Blethen’s margin over Walker. Additionally, Knutzen didn’t do as well in the county portion of the district, and in fact, was outperformed by Walker. It may not be fair to compare two different races, but the voting patterns are eerily alike. Obviously, being trounced in District 1 isn’t the final word.

The cautionary is: winners in District 1 primaries need not get too excited.
If the past repeats itself, this year’s Port Commissioner race will once again be won or lost in the small cities and unincorporated areas of Whatcom County. The demographics could well be against Blethen. To overcome this disadvantage, the nature and quality of his campaign will be critical to his success.

About Ham Hayes

Closed Account • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Ham lived in Bellingham while writing for NW Citizen from 2007 to 2011.

Comments by Readers

Riley Sweeney

Aug 26, 2009

Thank you Ham Hayes for this warning. Too often a campaign will think they have the race won and stop trying to fight for it. We still need everyone involved on the local level to move our city in the right direction.

As someone who’s candidate came in 2nd place in the primary, it is also good to know that a great deal can change in these next couple of months.

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