Redistricting pulled thousands of voters east of Seattle into one of the state's most competitive races
Kevin Ashe pulled out his unused primary ballot and opened it, scanning the races for a familiar face. He couldn’t remember who represents him in Congress. Was it Suzan DelBene? Or Rick Larsen? Either way, he didn’t vote for them.
After a moment, he realized it was neither. Redistricting has moved him into a different district than he was in for the past decade.
“Well, that’s news to me,” Ashe said, surprised. “I didn’t realize it would change that much.”
This area used to be in Washington’s 1st Congressional District. Then, redistricting moved a huge swath of land from Darrington, where Ashe lives, all the way down to Seattle’s well-off eastern suburbs into the 8th Congressional District. It’s considered a swing district – a rare thing in Washington state politics.
With the redrawing of congressional districts, some voters in the Pacific Northwest have suddenly found themselves in competitive territory. The redistricting process in Washington was done behind closed doors and has already drawn lawsuits.
Here, in the new part of the district where Ashe lives, it’s moved little communities along U.S. Highway 2 and down to the outskirts of Seattle’s suburbs from a solid blue district into a competitive one.
Democrat Kim Schrier is the incumbent here. She was elected in the 2018, post-Trump “blue wave.”
Now, there’s debate over whether a “red wave” is coming in November and whether her seat is in danger. Either way, this race has gotten a lot less attention than the Third Congressional District in southwest Washington. That's where a Donald Trump-endorsed insurgent won a primary race against a Republican incumbent who had voted to impeach the former president.
The Cook Political Report calls the 8th District a toss up. Schrier won the primary with less than 48% of the total vote. Now some believe she has a chance of losing her reelection bid to Matt Larkin, a pro-Trump Republican.
If Republicans flip five seats nationwide, they'll get control of the U.S. House of Representatives. So the stakes here are very high.
Schrier has raised more than $6 million for the November general election, some of it from national Democratic political action committees or PACs. Larkin hadn’t even raised a million dollars as of the Federal Elections Committee deadline July 13. But a Republican PAC has spent more than $600,000 on attack ads against Schrier, tying her to President Biden and inflation.
This new part of the 8th is in the shadow of the Cascade mountains. Most people drive straight through it on their way to go skiing, hiking, or boating.
Twenty-five years ago, Yvonne Lawson and her husband pulled off the highway, and discovered the dense little town of Index, tucked in among the Skykomish River, a train trestle and high, sheer walls of rock.
“We had to get out of Seattle, and we had some friends who lived in Index,” Lawson said. “We came here. My gosh, what a beautiful little town.” Lawson votes Democrat, and so do most of her neighbors. Though small, the Index precinct is overwhelmingly blue. But there are also lots of Republicans in this new chunk of the 8th District, which stretches down to East Redmond and the exurbs of King County.
More people here voted for Biden than Trump, but not by much. With redistricting, Biden got a little under 30,000 more votes in the district than Trump, according to political consultant Ben Anderstone’s calculation.
Index and communities down the road like Startup and Gold Bar are likely to get a good amount of attention from Democrat organizers hoping to keep the whole district blue. Anderstone thinks many people moving here are fleeing the rising cost of living in the suburbs closer to Seattle and Everett.
”Not super high-income. Not necessarily college degree-having,” Anderstone said. “Voters who are more affected by inflation.” These are voters that Democrats are losing in this district and nationwide.
The growth is evident. Roads are clogged with new commuters and weekenders. For some communities around here, the highway is the only way out of town and they could get stuck if it gets shut down, as it did this month by the Bolt Creek Fire, which forced some residents like Lawson to evacuate.
About 30 minutes down the road from Lawson’s house is Sultan, an old mining and logging town. Every Thursday, there’s “Coffee with the City” at Sultan City Hall, which doubles as the library. On a recent Thursday, they were talking about extending city hall’s hours for younger transplants who work 9-5 – that’s how much the city has grown.
One attendee is Donna Rice, who has lived in this area for 46 years. She votes for both parties, but abortion is the top issue on her mind right now.
“I have four daughters,” Rice said. “Not any of them have that problem, but some of their friends did. And their parents, if they knew they were pregnant, they would be kicked out to nowhere.”
Schrier, a pediatrician, is campaigning as a supporter of abortion rights. That’s enough to keep Angela Olson, who’s sitting next to Rice, from voting for Schrier.
Olson describes herself as a conservative Christian and says she’s offended by a doctor who would support abortion.
“They have to take an oath, a Hippocratic oath, where they swear to do no harm,” Olson said.
Olson is voting for Larkin, a Republican whose family owns an iron foundry in Sultan. Larkin opposes abortion, aligns himself with former President Donald Trump, and really focuses on policing. His slogan is “Make Crime Illegal Again.” His ads are full of footage of the 2020 protests in Seattle and talk about the Defund the Police movement.
But Seattle isn’t in this Congressional District, and it’s not clear how much voters here care about crime in the city.
Before Schrier, the 8th elected more moderate Republicans for decades, such as Dave Reichert, and before that, Jennifer Dunn. Larkin is more unapologetically conservative. He’s said he would support abortion when the life of the mother is in danger, but not for rape or incest.
On his website, he lists an endorsement from Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer, who is about to stand trial for allegedly lying to police about a Black newspaper carrier in his neighborhood. Larkin has praised Trump in the past. In The Seattle Times, he declined to comment on whether the 2020 election is legitimate or on the Congressional inquiry into the January 6 insurrection.
Anderstone says this part of the district, especially Sultan and Index, have a higher number of voters who are willing to vote Republican in one race, Democrat in another, or independent in a third.
That’s why Kim Schrier’s ads are more for people like Donna Rice, who has voted for both parties. In one, the Democrat mayor of Issaquah sits on a bench across from the Republican mayor of Wenatchee.
“We don’t agree on everything,” Wenatchee Mayor Frank Kunz says.
“But we do agree on this,” Issaquah Mayor Mary Lou Pauly says. “Kim Schrier is doing a great job.”
The ad goes on to tout her bills getting equipment for local police and funding for local roads.
Roads and traffic are an issue that seems to unite everyone in this new slice of the 8th District.
Deanna French, who works at the Sultan Senior Center, doesn’t usually vote and doesn’t like talking politics. But the roads are so bad that she doesn’t even leave her house on Sunday because Google Maps reroutes so many drivers through her neighborhood.
Now that they share a district with Eastern Washington, where French thinks the roads and traffic are a lot better, maybe things will get better in Sultan too.
“That’s what I'm hoping, with the lines changing,” French said. “Maybe we'll have better voices.”
This story is part of a collaboration among public radio stations in the Northwest News Network covering the 2022 election season.