Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Last year, voters in King County, Washington decided to make local elections in their jurisdiction non-partisan. This year, the race for King County Executive is one of the best partisan showdowns in the country.
Confused? Well, technically speaking, the King County election is a non-partisan race. Dow Constantine and Susan Hutchison won't appear with party labels on the ballot because of the vote to change election rules last year. What's more, while Costantine is noting that he is a Democrat, the affiliations get a little bit blurred with Hutchison. She's describing herself as a non-partisan candidate and touting endorsements from noteworthy political figures in both parties.
Nonetheless, Hutchison has at least some background in Republican politics. Constantine is positioning himself to the left of Hutchison on social issues, creating a clear ideological divide between the two. Some voters are viewing the race through a partisan lens, as Hutchison is getting 77% of the vote from Republicans and Constantine is receiving 62% of the vote from Democrats, according to a SurveyUSA poll that gives Hutchison a three-point lead overall.
Even if she's downplaying partisanship, electing Hutchison in King County would be a pretty big coup for Republicans. The county of close to 2 million people gave President Obama 70% of the vote last year. If they don't elect someone who is unambiguously a member of their party, Democrats will feel they failed.
The irony is that the partisan victory for Republicans will only be possible if many voters don't pick a candidate on the basis of partisan preference. In the first round of voting in which Hutchison and Constantine advanced to the general election, Democrats took 62% of the vote.
To win, Constantine only has to consolidate the vote of the other Democratic candidates, who have endorsed him. Yet clearly he is struggling to do so. And, while many voters appear clued into the partisan dynamics in the race, the county's new rule against party labels will probably make it a little harder for Constantine to spread the message that he is the Democrat. Non-partisanship could win the Republican Party win an election in King County.
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