Election Analysis Part I: Mary Hall and Sue Gunn

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Thurston County Auditor


Thurston County is Democratic territory. President Barack Obama won 60% of the vote here in 2012 (discounting minor party candidates), Governor Jay Inslee won 54%, and all three Democratic county commissioners won their last election with better than 53%. Every county office is held by Democrats except an Independent (conservative leaning) Sheriff – and a Republican County Auditor.

That auditor is Gary Alexander, and he seemed like the Republican’s best chance to win anything at all around here. He has a reputation as a moderate, previously won elections for Port commissioner and legislator (albeit representing conservative portions of Thurston County in the Legislature), and worked in the auditor’s office as deputy to popular Republican Kim Wyman before being appointed her replacement last year when she became Secretary of State.

Challenging Alexander for the auditor’s office was Democrat Mary Hall, the elections manager for Pierce County (she lives in Thurston County).

In this campaign, the candidates largely ignored policy issues. Face it, only a few political junkies and hardcore partisans knew or cared about the issues at stake. Instead, both candidates focused on experience and qualifications.

Alexander touted his prior experience running the auditor’s office, emphasizing that it does more than just manage elections, and suggested that Hall was an outsider because of her Pierce County connections. Hall pointed to her experience managing elections, and called Alexander just a politician – and a conservative one, at that – as opposed to a professional administrator.

Mostly, the election came down to party preference. It was the only race on the ballot that listed party affliations. Both the local Republican and Democratic Parties made this race their priority, donating the biggest chunks of campaign money to each respective campaign. Alexander raised $55,000, Hall $67,000 – comparable to recent County Commissioner races.

A rule-of-thumb in local politics is that the simplist way to measure any voter’s party preference is to measure how far they live from downtown Olympia: nearer downtown, more likely Democratic; farther, more likely Republican. The election for county auditor followed the pattern.

For example, Democratic Hall won 64% of the vote in Olympia. In fact, 23 of her best 24 precincts in the entire county were located in Olympia, mostly in the liberal areas of the northwest neighborhood (near the Olympia Food Co-op), northeast neighborhood (near Bigelow Park), and South Capitol neighborhood. (The other precinct among those 24? The Evergreen dorms.)

Moving out of Olympia, Hall’s vote totals dropped fast, to 48% in Lacey, and only 37% in Rochester, which is typical of south county precincts. Across the county, Hall’s precinct-by-precinct percentages almost perfectly tracked the percentages won by Obama and other Democrats – except that she consistently trailed behind them (or, Alexander consistently exceeded the usual Republican percentages) by just enough to make this the tightest race on election night.

In the first election returns, Hall was ahead by a few hundred votes. The next day, late votes dropped her a few hundred votes behind. The day after that, even later votes put her ahead again by a few hundred votes. At press time, Hall clung to a 50.5%-49.5% lead, with too few uncounted votes remaining to change it again.

Because this was a special election to serve out the last year of Wyman’s term, Hall will have to run for re-election next year. But if a Republican like Alexander can’t quite win a race like this, the Republicans must be wondering how they’ll ever win an election in Thurston County again.



Port of Olympia Commissioner

[Disclosure: The author worked on Sue Gunn's campaign for Port Commissioner. If anyone close to Jeff Davis' campaign differs with this analysis, write us.]

The other county-wide race on the ballot was Port of Olympia Commissioner. Four years ago, Jeff Davis used a centrist pro-jobs message to defeat a more leftist environmental-minded opponent. This year, the race seemed seemed at first to be repeating itself, but the final outcome was very different.

Davis started with a similar script. He touted the port’s success at increasing revenue from ships loading and unloading at the marine terminal as evidence that the port was creating jobs. He gave a quick nod to environmental concerns, but talked more of port plans to build a new warehouse and other infrastructure to promote economic development.

Davis is a member of the longshoremans union, which has an obvious interest in promoting more shipping, and which was also his biggest donor by far in both his port campaigns. Where that union led, other unions followed. The Democratic Party and most Democratic elected officials also endorsed him. And he won support from the business and developer community as well, notably from the Olympia Master Builders, who typically oppose all but the most conservative Democrats.

Challenging Davis was Sue Gunn. She was unknown in local politics except among some leftist activists, based on her weak third-party campaign (3.3%) for Congress against Denny Heck in 2012. Gunn was encouraged by a group of port critics, unhappy at what they saw as tax subsidies for corportations shipping raw logs and hydraulic fracking materials, among other complaints.

Unlike previous candidates who challenged the status quo at the port, Gunn hit on issues that seemed to resonate with the public. Port critics have been accused of wanting to shut down the marine terminal, and thus destroy jobs; Gunn reframed the debate as a choice of a few corporate jobs versus more jobs at local small businesses. While most candidates talked about reducing port taxes (including Davis four years ago), Gunn reached out to conservative voters to inform them that Davis had voted to increase those taxes. Gunn said she would consider environmental and social concerns in port decisions, notably about shipping raw logs and fracking materials, while Davis declined to criticize such shipments and instead limited his concerns to products that “pos[e] an immediate threat to the citizens of Thurston County” (as he wrote in his OP&L candidate questionnaire).

Perhaps crucially, Gunn talked about the Olympia Farmers Market. The market sits on property leased from the port. It became an issue when port officials made plans to use the market’s overflow parking lot for a longshoremans union hall (plans that are still in motion), and especially when Davis made comments about taking back the main market parking lot for more log storage space. Davis claimed, unconvincingly, that his comments were in jest. Market vendors were already annoyed at the port commission after a recent dispute about rent paid by the market, and over 60 vendors signed onto Gunn’s campaign, allowing her to present herself as the market’s champion.

Davis raised $43,000 to Gunn’s $21,000. However, the numbers are misleading: Davis used $7,000 to pay off debt from a losing 2012 campaign for legislature, and still had $15,000 left over after the election (perhaps for a future legislative campaign?), leaving him effectively with the same campaign cash as Gunn.

When the election returns came in, Gunn surprised most observers by winning nearly 52% of the vote.

Though Gunn’s percentage was similar to Hall’s in the County Auditor race, the distribution of those votes was completely different. Unlike Hall, who won big margins in Democratic areas and lost equally big margins in Republican ones, Gunn won narrowly almost everywhere, with only a slight lean toward Democratic areas. For example, she took 54% in Olympia, 51% in Lacey, and 48% in Rochester. (Compare these results to Hall’s, noted earlier. The same point is shown in the two maps below.)

Furthermore, Gunn did better in precincts that were either strongly Democratic or strongly Republican – urban Olympia and rural south county, with more highly partisan voters one way or the other – than in more middling suburban precincts. She won the ends (or the “extremes,” some might say) of the left/right political spectrum. Or, as Emmett O’Connell noted at Olympia Time blog (olywa.blogspot.com), she connected the ends of that spectrum, as “Her victory was based on liberals who didn’t like the direction of the port using public money to support private interests and conservatives who felt the same way.”

Now Gunn, the port critic, will become one vote on the three-member Port Commission. However, any policy changes at the port require two votes. Another commissioner, Bill McGregor, just won re-election unopposed, contributed to Davis’ campaign, and broadly shares Davis’ views. The third commissioner, George Barner, supported Davis in 2009 but held off this year, and has been less predictable in his positions.

Thus, it is not yet clear whether the election of a very different port commissioner will lead to change at the Port of Olympia. Any such change – or perhaps a backlash against it – may come about only through future elections.


These two maps illustrate the difference in vote distribution between Mary Hall’s campaign for Thurston County Auditor and Sue Gunn’s campaign for Port of Olympia Commissioner. On the left, in the traditional pattern for a Democrat, Hall won precincts concentrated heavily in and near liberal Olympia (shown in blue), with just a few in conservative south county precincts. Hall also won by those urban precincts by large percentages, and lost by similar large percentages in rural ones. In contrast, on the right, Gunn won a mix of urban and rural precincts (shown in red), generally by narrower margins in all of them. Most of the precincts she lost are the middle-of-the-road suburban precincts on the edge of Olympia. (Don’t be distracted by the sheer size of the south county precincts. Those rural precincts have no more, and sometimes fewer, voters than the geographically tiny urban precincts.)

Maps courtesy of Emmett O’Connell at Olympia Time blog, olywa.blogspot.com, a great source of local history and commentary. 

Sue Gunn victory map

Mary Hall 2013 Countywide

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