Are Incumbent City Councilmembers Doomed? The Seattle Times Sure Hopes So!

The Seattle Times editorial board, citing “election watchers,” argues that Tammy Morales and other incumbent council members are in trouble, but they don’t have the numbers to back it up.

By Erica C. Barnett

In a recent editorial arguing that city council incumbents face uphill battles against their business-backed challengers in November, the Seattle Times confidently asserted that “only one barely broke 50% in counts as of Wednesday suggesting voters are open to making a change.” That sentence, which according to the piece’s byline was not written by AI, is a reference to Dan Strauss, the District 6 incumbent who currently has just under 52 percent—23 points more than his Times-backed challenger, Pete Hanning.

The editorial continues: “Experienced election watchers say any final result under 55% bodes ominously for incumbents. Challengers now must press their case.”

Unsure which “experienced election watchers” the Times is talking to, I decided to look at the numbers myself, going back to 2009 in our quest to find incumbents who came in close to, but failed to top, 55 percent and went on to lose.

Actually, it turned out to a pretty easy task, because there weren’t any examples.

Since the Times set 55 percent rather than 50 percent as their metric, we started by looking only people who got between 50 and 55 percent in the primary and went on to lose in the general—eliminating people like former mayor Greg Nickels, who got knocked out in the 2009 primary with 25 percent; former mayor Mike McGinn, whose 27 percent primary showing in 2013 translated to a four-point loss to Ed Murray; and former council member Jean Godden, who failed to top 20 percent and got bumped in the 2015 primary. That yielded no results—no one, in other words, who started out close to but under 55 percent and didn’t win reelection.

Unsure which “experienced election watchers” the Times is talking to, I decided to look at the numbers myself, going back to 2009 in our quest to find incumbents who came in close to, but failed to top, 55 percent and went on to lose. Actually, it turned out to a pretty easy task, because there weren’t any examples.  

In fact, the only election that came close to meeting the Times’ sweeping claim was former council member Richard Conlin’s reelection bid in 2013, when he went on to lose in a citywide election to challenger Kshama Sawant by a 1.7 percent margin. Since the Times is arguing that the city is clamoring for leaders who will “provide comfort to [Seattle residents” while enforcing basic rules to ensure peace, security and prosperity for everyone,” the election of a firebrand socialist over a traditional Seattle centrist is probably not the example they’re looking for.

Contrary to the Times’ “experienced election watchers” (many of whom, we suspect, may sit on the Seattle Times editorial board), there are many examples of candidates who won less than 55 percent of the primary-election vote—in some cases, far less than 55 percent—and went on to win the general election by margins of 12 to 22 percent. They include Sawant and Tim Burgess in 2015, as well as Lisa Herbold, Tammy Morales, and Debora Juarez in 2019.

Obviously, this election, like any election, could end up with the ouster of one or more incumbents—Andrew Lewis, in District 7, is currently looking the weakest with around 44 percent, about him around where Burgess and Juarez were before they bounced back to win reelection by large margins. The Times has been doing a victory lap since election night, claiming their endorsements “matter a lot” when it comes to anointing the right-lane candidates in every race. In that context, it’s hard not to read the Times’ unsourced declaration as wishful thinking on behalf of the “outstanding” candidates they endorsed to take down the council incumbents—candidates who currently have between 29 and 43 percent of the vote.

17 thoughts on “Are Incumbent City Councilmembers Doomed? The Seattle Times Sure Hopes So!”

  1. Seattle hasn’t got shit accomplished since there was a unified Council + Mayor and the last time that happened was 20 years ago when Norm Rice was mayor. Since then we have had nothing but a laundry list of mediocre mayors and ineffective councils. There is lots to unite about but egos have the city treading water.

  2. Also worth noting. The primaries tend to favor both extremes, while also leaning slightly to the right. Thus an incumbent with a solid challenger just to the left of them would be the most likely to get defeated in the general. None of the races seem like that at all.

    There is only one competitive race, in my opinion, and that is in the Fifth.

    1. Turnout and where the eliminated candidate’s votes go are big question marks. Are you saying you feel certain that Davis will win but also Saka? Are you saying Hudson is certain to win, or Hollingsworth?

  3. Generally speaking, it is extremely rare for an incumbent city council member to lose. There is Richard Conlin and … anyone? Seriously, I don’t remember any other incumbent to lose (and I’m sure there are some, if you go back far enough). On the other hand, there have been plenty who have failed to get over 50% in the primary.

  4. The “rule of thumb” regarding incumbents being in trouble if pre-general election results are less than 50 per cent typically applies specifically to Congressional or statewide races. Municipal races typically have a higher potential for volatility throughout the election cycle.

  5. Seattle Times-backed mayors have been running things since 2014. Repeatedly running on “change” despite being more-or-less a continuation of their predecessor’s policies, by using the City Council as a boogeyman.

    The Mayor has far more power than the City Council in Seattle, so if we really want to try something new, that’s where the change needs to happen.

    1. Seattle has had a spilt government with a more conservative mayor and more liberal council for awhile now. This spilt just fosters disfunction as the two warring sides can’t seem to get along.

      Maybe this next Council slides towards the center a little? The city government would likely function better.

      Some of the problem is voters who have a big split on what they want for the City overall and what they want in their particular neighborhood. Pretty much everybody in Seattle wants stuff like affordable housing and methadone programs… just not where they live. We bitch about the price of housing and yet chain ourselves to trees to stop development. Being a democracy, Seattle certainly gets the government to deserves.

  6. The results were surprising – name recognition goes a long way – primaries don’t always predict outcome though especially with lots of candidates splitting the vote and low voter turnout.

    1. WEAK sauce. If you think a council member is a dope, then he or she should be beatable. For God’s sake, of all people, Sawant beat an incumbent.

      If you lose out because the dissent split, you only need to finish 2nd in a primary. If you can’t finish second, you should really look at yourself and ask why.

      1. Sometimes finishing second is better than finishing first in a Seattle primary. Looking at the results in this last primary, overall centrists who more or less support Harrell are in good shape even if they didn’t break the magical 50% threshold. Dan Strauss isn’t likely to lose no matter what the Seattle Times is pushing.

  7. Until a strong conserative who has the capacity to actually accomplish anything the majority of Seattleites need and want, Seattle will continue to flounder.

    1. Davison ran in the primary for one of the council seats (I think it was district 4) and got smoked. As City Attorney, this is as high as she gets (she ran for Lt. Gov. with Culp, but as far as I can tell, she accepted Inslee’s victory unlike Culp).

  8. Obviously the Seattle Times Ed Board still hasn’t figured out their endorsements are usually the kiss of death. But I’m glad they keep making them so we know what losers they are.

      1. Based on recent history, having Harrell win reelection is less likely than a City Council incumbent losing a reelection race. The vulnerable ones just don’t run again.

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