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Democrats’ long reign In Washington could be imperiled

Will Democrats face this sort of ire come 2012?

OLYMPIA, Wash. – It’s been a good run for Democrats in Washington state. They’ve held the governor’s office for nearly thirty years, the state House for a decade and the Washington Senate since 2005. But that political dominance could be imperiled.

Polls show voters think Washington is headed in the wrong direction. Majority Democrats are at odds with some of their key constituencies. And Republicans have found - in Attorney General Rob McKenna – a highly competitive gubernatorial candidate for 2012.

There’s a maxim in matters of the heart that also applies to politics: dance with the one that brung ya. Country singer Shania Twain even has a song about it: “You gotta dance with the one that brought you. And stay with the one that wants you.”

Distancing from the poor?

In the case of Democratic Governor Chris Gregoire, she got elected twice in part because of her support for social services. But you wouldn’t necessary have known that when she took the stage recently at a Association of Washington Business conference at a golf resort in Central Washington.

The resort was crawling with sheriff’s deputies because a group of anti-poverty activists had vowed to crash the conference. Their message: poor people in Washington are suffering while businesses retain their tax breaks. Gregoire sent a representative to meet with the protestors, while inside they became fodder for her opening joke.

“It’s good to be here. If you’re not aware I’ve brought some of my close, personal friends to visit as well (laughter),” Gregoire said.

That joke could be a metaphor for the current relationship between majority Democrats and many of their base supporters. Frayed, fractured, tense – you pick the adjective.

1994 all over again?

Jeff Johnson heads the Washington State Labor Council, the largest union organization in the state. He says his members are bummed out by what he calls a “leadership deficit” in Olympia.

“I haven’t seen such a sense of disillusionment, lack of hope and optimism and also anger since 1994,” he said.

That’s the year Republicans nearly swept control of both chambers of the Washington legislature. Johnson says with the kind of leadership he’s seeing from Democrats on the budget and issues like workers’ compensation, there’s no reason for union members to help them get re-elected next year.

“They’re gonna lose our folks, our folks are going to sit out in hopeless unless they take bold stands," Johnson said.

Voter mood has soured

It’s not just the Democratic base that’s fed up. A recent poll by the Seattle consulting firm Strategies 360 finds a sour mood among likely voters of all stripes. Fifty-seven percent say Washington state is on the “wrong track,” Gregoire’s approval rating sits at 43-percent. And Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna has the early lead in the 2012 governor’s race – even though a Republican hasn’t held that seat since 1984.

In a separate survey, independent pollster Stuart Elway finds the mood of Washington voters stands at a twenty year low.

“This is the best opportunity Republicans have had,” he said.

And now Democrats are signaling they may try to send a tax measure to voters next spring. The legislature will meet in special session in November to decide how to address yet another budget shortfall – this time $2 billion.

Call for taxes a good move?

Sending a tax measure to the ballot could ease tensions with the party base, but you would think it could also anger voters at large. That’s not necessarily so says pollster Elway. He recently found support for a mix of cuts and taxes.

“Depending on the specifics or course, a tax proposal on the ballot is not necessarily gonna drag the Democrats to the bottom of the sea,” Elway said.

If that tax vote happens next spring, it could be seen as a referendum on one party Democratic rule in Washington. But the real test will come more than a year from now in the 2012 election.

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.