Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: History, and Tacoma’s Democratic leanings, stacked against Dammeier

The task for state Sen. Bruce Dammeier is significant. To win the Pierce County executive’s race and become the second Republican to hold the office, he will have to buck electoral history.

Can it be done?

Dammeier is a well-spoken and experienced legislator, challenging Tacoma’s Rick Talbert for the county’s top job. In short — whether you agree with all his politics or not — he’s a quality candidate. Dammeier has campaigned on the need to shake things up in county government, and while he often paints with a broad brush on the campaign trail — returning to themes of job growth and reducing bureaucracy — he’s a formidable opponent.

Here’s the truth of the matter, however: Putting a Republican in the county executive’s office remains a tall order.

With apologies to the rest of the county, call it the Tacoma effect.

It’s happened only once — when Republican and former Tacoma Mayor Doug Sutherland won two terms, holding the office from 1992 to 2000. Sutherland moved on to perform another Republican feat when he was elected statewide as commissioner of public lands.

At 79, Sutherland has since traded public service for retirement, and the rain of Washington for the sun of Arizona. So when I called him this week, he had some time to talk.

“I think people saw me as a pragmatic person,” Sutherland described when asked how he was able to succeed where other Republicans have failed. “I looked at things on the basis of ‘OK we’ve got a problem, how do we fix it?’ We’ve got short funds for the budget, how do we make it work?’”

I think (voters) saw … that I didn’t run the office as a Republican. They saw me as Doug, the county executive. … People didn’t feel that I was strictly a ‘Republican’ – whatever the hell that means.

Former Pierce County Executive Doug Sutherland

“I was not at all afraid to work on both sides of the aisle,” he continued. “I think (voters) saw … that I didn’t run the office as a Republican. They saw me as Doug, the county executive. … People didn’t feel that I was strictly a ‘Republican’ — whatever the hell that means.”

It’s worth noting that Sutherland isn’t an unbiased observer of this race. Bruce Dammeier’s father was “a good friend,” and Sutherland “knew Bruce as he was coming up in the businesses.” He has endorsed Dammeier, and was unapologetic in expressing his belief that the Republican candidate possesses the qualities necessary to do the job well.

But back when Sutherland was winning Pierce County executive elections — twice besting Democrat Wendell Brown — he had something Dammeier doesn’t have: a history here in the Democratic stronghold of Tacoma.

And while The News Tribune’s coverage of Sutherland’s second victory (by a slim margin of 2,216 votes, aided by votes siphoned off by independent Dale Washam) notes that he won largely by “sweeping the county’s suburban and rural communities” — he did at least well enough in Tacoma, where he was a known commodity, to make it all possible.

Which now becomes the challenge for Dammeier.

And it’s a sizable one.

For fun, let’s do some rudimentary math. It’s not a difficult tabulation, even for an Evergreen State College graduate like myself

Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson is expecting countywide turnout to be in the 78 to 80 percent range, noting that it’s “feeling like 80 percent to us.” While turnout will surely fluctuate from city to city, and neighborhood to neighborhood, that’s roughly 390,537 voters in the county and 92,842 voters in Tacoma who will be casting ballots.

If Talbert carries 60 or 61 percent of Tacoma, as he did in the primary election, it will put Dammeier in a roughly 20,000-vote hole coming out of the city, meaning he’ll need anywhere from 52 to 54 percent of the rest of the county to catch up and overtake Talbert.

If, say, Talbert receives 67 percent of the vote in Tacoma, as President Barack Obama did in 2012, it will put Dammeier in a roughly 30,000-vote hole, making the magic number for the Republican closer to 55 percent in the rest of the county.

The question becomes: What’s more difficult for Dammeier, holding Talbert to 60-61 percent (or lower) in Tacoma, or winning 52-54 percent (or greater) in the rest of the county?

And, again, can either be done?

Yes, there are reasons for optimism for Dammeier, including a sizable fundraising edge and the fact that in the primary race that also included Republican Dan Roach, Talbert received 61 percent of the vote in Tacoma, but only 46 percent of the vote countywide. And Rob McKenna’s results in the 2012 governor’s race provide something of a rough Pierce County blueprint, when the former attorney general lost Tacoma but bested Jay Inslee overall.

But there’s also the Trump cloud hanging over the race. It’s hard to envision the controversial Republican candidate for president making life easier on down-ballot Republicans such as Dammeier.

What will happen is anyone’s guess, and making predictions isn’t my strong suit. There is a reason elections are decided by citizens with ballots and not columnists with calculators.

Still, for Dammeier, the task at hand is clear: Pierce County electing its first Republican executive since Doug Sutherland will require voters doing something they haven’t done in two decades.

And that — for the first time in a long time — would mean Tacoma was no longer calling the shots.