Here's the perfect metaphor for Washington state politics in 2012 (and more importantly, perhaps a crystal ball on 2013): State Sen. Ed Murray (D-43, Seattle), who led the charge to pass the historic gay marriage bill that was then overwhelmingly upheld by Washington voters, was displaced as the senate leader when, it turned out, the Republicans had the numbers to take over.
Adding to the telling symbolism: The GOP took the reins away from Murray just as gay couples were toasting their marriages in mid-December.
This coup wasn't an anti–gay marriage backlash, though. It was a post–gay marriage reality check on the political landscape of Washington state.
Indeed, despite, this year's Democratic sweep in Washington state—Obama, Maria Cantwell, Jay Inslee, Suzan DelBene, Bob Ferguson, pot, and yes, the Democrats' longstanding agenda item, gay marriage—the year in local political news is ending (with a story in today's New York Times about it, appropriately enough) on a winning note for the Republicans.
The juxtaposition between the Democrats losing control of the budget while running the table on social issues is key to making sense out of what's happening in Washington state.
The biggest political story—and Jolt—of the year is certainly the Republican coup in Olympia, starring two dissident Democrats—Sens. Tim Sheldon (D-35, Potlatch) and Rodney Tom (D-48, Bellevue)—who joined with the minority Republicans, giving the GOP the numbers to displace newly elected leader Sen. Murray and the Democratic leadership in December.
As odd as it may sound that the GOP rates as this year's big winner, it really shouldn't be a surprise. Back in early March, the biggest political story of the year—before the election heated up (and also before Chris Hansen took out his checkbook to float an NBA arena in SoDo)—was the first Republican coup when the Republicans commandeered the state senate floor to ram their own budget through.
And make no mistake, the budget is the central issue for the upcoming legislative session.
The juxtaposition between the Democrats losing control of the budget while running the table on social issues is key to making sense out of what's happening in Washington state right now.
Think about it: Inslee and DelBene (the only two Democratic candidates who were actually in close races) were able to win because social issues turned the tide; cue up Inslee's opponent Rob McKenna barking at a pro-choice activist to "get a job." Likewise, DelBene's Republican opponent John Koster added the phrase "the rape thing" to the sexist GOP vocabulary that had already given us "legitimate rape" as a parade of Republican candidates expounded on the position that women should not get abortions even in instances of rape. But notice: While voters were rejecting Republican candidates like Koster and McKenna (McKenna was also against gay marriage), they simultaneously passed Tim Eyman's latest tax protection measure (a two-thirds requirement for tax increases).
The lesson? Washington voters are liberal on social issues, but they are more conservative on budgeting issues. (Footnote: Voters have certainly approved taxes in the past, though, upholding the gas tax in 2005 when it was tied to specific local road projects. And all but 15 school districts—out of 295—have voted to pass their own property taxes to fund schools.)
Sen. Tom, it should be noted, is a social liberal. He's pro-choice, and he voted for gay marriage. And, incredibly telling, he's now the de facto head of the Republican majority in Olympia.
In his star turn in today's NYT, he said this:
"We're not going to turn back the clock and pass any new social legislation," he said.
In the new coalition, as it turns out, the conservative social legislation that Mr. Tom loathes will be off the table, with a relentless focus on what he called, in an interview, the "bread and butter" of the budget, job creation and education financing.
We're not thrown for a loop by the rise of the GOP despite this year's affirmation of Democratic social values.
The day after the election, our Afternoon Jolt starred two election winners: We made Murray the winner, a stand-in for the victorious gay marriage measure, and we made Republican state Sen. Steve Litzow (R-41, Mercer Island), a winner.
Litzow is a social liberal and fiscal conservative who beat back a Democratic challenger in the swing-district Microsoft suburbs. We said that Litzow, who has also voted with the Democrats on environmental issues and on legalizing medical marijuana, was the answer to the GOP's problems. This was prior to the Republicans' December takeover.
Despite the fact that 2012 looked like, and in some ways truly was, a Democratic year, we're giving our Year-End Jolt to the Republicans—mostly, though, for how they've positioned themselves for 2013.
Now, with the takeover nearly assured, Tom has put Litzow in charge of the high-profile education committee—arguably the most important committee in the legislature this session as Olympia grapples with meeting the state Supreme Court's order to fully fund education. (Litzow, by the way, is a leading proponent of charter schools, something else the voters supported this fall.)
Suddenly, with gay marriage settled and the budget and education taking center stage, the Republicans in Olympia are looking pretty strong.
So, despite the fact that 2012 looked like, and in some ways truly was, a Democratic year, we're giving our Year-End Jolt to the Republicans—mostly, though, for how they've positioned themselves for 2013.
There are two caveats to all this, though. 1) Social liberals like Litzow and Tom are not the norm in the GOP's "Majority Coalition." The GOP is still ultra conservative, and it's hardly a given that Tom will be able to keep the Republicans in check and make good on his pledge to the NYT to stay away from "social legislation," particularly with immigration and implementing Obamacare on next year's agenda. (Tom put conservative Sen. Randi Becker (R-2, Eatonville) in charge of the Healthcare Committee.) There certainly could be an attempted coup within the coup that will topple the GOP's tenuous grip on power.
And 2) After the Republican budget coup in March, the Democrats—with the help of the liberal house and with some limited concessions to the Republicans—were able to pass the Democratic senate budget. By the way, it was the budget that the then-displaced senate Ways and Means Chair, wait for it, Sen. Ed Murray, had proposed in the first place.
Check out our Cola "One Question" with Tom.