District 5 commissioner race could flip Spokane County

There hasn’t been a single Democrat elected to the commission since 2010. Now it looks like there will be two, and potentially three.

What was predicted has come to pass: The party that wins in District 5 will almost certainly control the new five-seat Spokane County Commission for the next 2 years.

It’s a huge shift for one of the most powerful elected bodies in our region. There hasn’t been a single Democrat elected to the commission since Al French defeated incumbent Bonnie Mager in 2010, and now it looks like there will be two, and potentially three.

We won’t rehash all the gory details of the structural changes that make a more equitable county commission election possible. For that, check out this previous report from RANGE.

The important piece to understand here is that the other four districts were drawn with a Democratic lean in districts 1 and 2 and a (potentially insurmountable) Republican skew in districts 3 and 4. District 5 was drawn as a Republican-leaning swing district.

Results from the 2020 Governor’s race, demonstrating each new district’s partisan leanings. 

That’s more or less how the primary played out. In the strong Republican districts, Democrats didn’t even field candidates and incumbents Josh Kerns and Mary Kuney each got more than 50% of the vote against their Republican challengers.

In District 1, Democrat Chris Jordan almost exactly matched Jay Inslee’s 55.2% in a two-way race. Amber Waldref did a little better than the 2020 gubernatorial numbers, also pulling over 55% of the vote.

With all that, the spotlight is on Commissioner District 5, which includes some western portions of the City of Spokane and all of western Spokane County including Airway Heights, Medical Lake and Cheney.

A week after election day, here’s how the district has broken down:

Four candidates faced off in the primary: two Republicans, one Democrat, and one independent candidate. The Democrat, first-time candidate Maggie Yates, ran a well-executed campaign that earned her 44.5% of the vote as of Monday, August 8th. She performed well in the City of Spokane, Airway Heights and Cheney. Yates did well in more diverse, younger and economically distressed precincts. She earned more than 50% of the vote in 32 of 90 precincts compared to French who is only winning 13 precincts by 50% or more. Being the top vote-getter in the primary gives the campaign bragging rights and momentum, but Yates will need a robust general election campaign to overcome the unfavorable partisanship of the district where Republican Loren Culp won 54% of the vote for governor in 2020. She’ll need to do almost 5 percent better than her primary performance — and 4 percent better than Inslee did against Culp to prevail.

Last week, that path became a little more clear when Yates announced that former Airway Heights Mayor Don Harmon, a Republican, endorsed her campaign. It is a pretty big deal for a Republican to publicly endorse a Democrat in local politics, especially one who was a candidate in that race during the primary. And, Harmon has offered to campaign for Yates. The endorsement may signal the formation of an anti-French coalition that could work together to deny his reelection bid, but it’s far from a gimme. Democrat/Republican unity endorsements are as uncommon locally as they are nationally, and Yates will need to put in work to let Harmon’s voters know about the endorsement, and then convince them to turn out in the general on her behalf.

But how many Harmon voters would Yates need to gain in order to defeat French? It is hard to say, since the primary can have a different voter composition than the general election. But, if we assume that the voters will be the same, Yates would need to win about 35.5% of Harmon voters. Yates could benefit from engaging Carter voters too, particularly in Cheney and Airway Heights where Carter earned 7-8% of the vote in some precincts.

Check out this map of the district, which shows precincts where Yates and French were able to gain over 50% support and precincts where they are winning, but did not gain 50% support. We also marked which precincts voted for Harmon by 15% or more, and two precincts where he finished in second place.

Every precinct with diagonal lines is a precinct Harmon received at least 15% of the vote (Map by Logan Camporeale)

Generally, minority-party candidates in a given jurisdiction focus heavily on get out the vote efforts in areas where they are strong. This is why most Democratic congressional campaigns in our area — even very well-funded candidates like Lisa Brown — focus on Democratic strongholds like Spokane, Walla Walla and Whitman Counties.

Given Harmon’s solid showing in the Southeast, North, and Northwest parts of the district, as well as along the I-90 corridor, Yates has plenty of places to look for the votes she’ll need.

And while Yates’ could theoretically win with huge general election turnouts in the precincts she won, her most likely path to victory is going to include Harmon voters in traditionally Republican precincts and households.

The easiest path to reelection for French, meanwhile, is to try and stop the bleeding and prevent more high-profile defections. That appears to be the tack he’s taking.

French responded to Harmon’s endorsement of Yates by painting Harmon as a crypto-progressive, telling the Spokesman via text that, “Mr Harmon’s endorsement of my far left liberal opponent clearly demonstrates that he is not a Republican and misled the voters in the primary.”

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