Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist
Political candidates ignore Pierce County at their peril
Politicians underestimate the importance of Pierce County's 400,000 registered voters at their peril, writes columnist Joni Balter. Voters there are open minded and fiercely independent.
Seattle Times editorial columnist
For all the political analysts poring over Washington polling data, dissecting past voting behavior and contemplating aggressive get-out-the-vote campaigns, one key geographical area looms large: Pierce County.
Obviously, if you are the Big Thinker behind both U.S. Senate candidates likely to advance to the general election, former state Sen. Dino Rossi, Republican, or Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat, or the wonder workers backing top candidates in the 8th District Congressional race, Suzan DelBene, Democrat, and incumbent U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, Republican, you stress about every voter. And in the Senate race, you track voters in every county.
But one place to watch because it may signal the ultimate outcome is the state's second-most populous county, Pierce.
"Pierce and Snohomish are key to the state," says former state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance. "Generally, a Republican will do very well in Eastern Washington and very poorly in King County, so you have to clean up in Pierce and Snohomish counties." In other words, you have to win these counties by more than a couple of points.
Nationwide, elections are won or lost in suburban swing districts, and Pierce County has a lot of fast-growing, new suburbs, especially near Puyallup, Sumner and South Hill.
While Pierce can be a bellwether, often voting with the state winner, the same voters can also trek down a different, more individualist path.
In 2008, county voters backed Barack Obama and Gov. Chris Gregoire against Rossi. They supported Sen. Maria Cantwell, Democrat, against Mike McGavick, Republican, in 2006.
But look at 2004, when this maverick, I'll-do-what-I-darn-please county voted heavily for Murray against Republican George Nethercutt and backed Rossi for governor against Gregoire by 4 percentage points. Statewide, as we all know, that race came down to the chin hairs.
In the 8th Congressional District covering eastern King and Pierce counties, Reichert often runs close in King County but then posts big numbers in Pierce, boosted by more-conservative voters in rural and suburban areas.
Still, Pierce County seems fond of female pols, as evidenced by the fact that former Democratic Auditor Pat McCarthy serves as county executive, and Murray, Cantwell and Gregoire have won here. But Rossi is also popular.
McCarthy said people forget Pierce County can be very rural. With two military bases (now merged into one), the county has the state's highest concentration of retired veterans.
And even Democrats here tend to be more moderate than flaming liberal.
In 2008, a convoluted initiative appeared on state ballots seeking to open high-occupancy vehicle lanes to all traffic at certain hours. Instead of easing congestion, voters in every county but one — Pierce — realized the plan would increase driving headaches. Pierce County also bucked a trend in much of Western Washington in 2009 on Referendum 71 and voted against ensuring a list of equal rights for gay and lesbian domestic partners.
If I were Murray, I would run that compelling TV ad recounting her work on behalf of veterans about every 20 minutes in Pierce County. If I were Rossi, I would tout any independence from Republicans and the government in-crowd and run as a skilled outsider.
If I were DelBene, I would just about move into Pierce County. Though she may have picked the wrong year to run, DelBene has a warmer countenance and better grasp of issues than the previous two-time Democratic challenger to Reichert, Darcy Burner, who became a bit of a scold. Reichert has work to do in King County.
So far, no challenger has been able to pick off Reichert, because at the end of the race, when the last of the returns come in, the Pierce County tide rolls in high and wide for the former sheriff.
Word to the wise. Politicians underestimate the importance of Pierce County's 400,000 registered voters at their peril. These folks are open minded and fiercely independent. They do not like to be taken for granted or be told how to think and what to do.
Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is email@example.com
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