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Crime Messaging Fails to Compete in King County Elections

The elections this year have been hammered by messages from both parties attempting to remind voters why they should cast their ballot for one or the other. Democrats have ranged in messaging from abortion, due to the Dobbs decision, democracy from the continued investigations into the January 6th insurrection and coup, and reminding voters of the impacts their policies have had since taking office in 2021. Republicans in Washington have had two main messages: crime and inflation.

Crime messaging has been especially rife this election. Police across the state have blamed an inability to pursue criminals on recent reforms made by the state legislature, under the control of the Democratic Party in both chambers. Up and down the ballot from Tiffany Smiley to Jim Ferrell, Democrats across the state have been attacked by the GOP for an alleged aversion to tackling crime and have been pegged with (false) accusations of defunding police and turning their cities into bastions of crime, drug use, and homelessness. With results still coming in from the state, it appears this message had little success.

This strategy was likely afforded great consideration after the Seattle elections in 2021, where progressives ran abolitionist candidates which, shockingly, sent a Republican to the prosecutor’s office in Seattle in a close race. GOP and anti-reform conservatives likely made a bet this message would have the same resonance in a high-turnout, even-year election, but that gamble appears to have failed. It should come with no surprise, King County voters have repeatedly supported criminal justice reforms at the ballot box by voter initiatives election after election, and the 2020 protests which drove some of the state-level reforms were the largest protests in the nation, reaching even the smaller towns of the United States including in Washington.

The loss of Jim Ferrell to Leesa Manion really demonstrates the strategy’s failure. Elected mayors from South King County, including Renton’s Mayor Armondo Pavone, signed onto a divisive letter condemning the criminal justice reforms for a rise a crime being seen. This month, several city councilmembers from these cities issued their own statement countering their mayors, supporting the reforms and demanding a data-driven approach to solving crime-related issues (including Renton’s councilmembers Ed Prince, Ryan McIrvin, and Carmen Rivera). Right-wing reporters exploited a labor shortage in the Department of Corrections and police complaints while trying to paint Manion as soft on crime, wanting to “divert criminals to social programs instead of prison”. Still, tonight Ferrell conceded to Manion who currently holds 56% of the reported votes with a 60,000+ lead. Patty Murray’s lead the first night led to an immediate concession from Smiley. Overall, this was not a great midterm for Republicans in Washington.

The WAGOP can still celebrate its past victory in Seattle, but it will have to find another strategy if it plans to win voters in King County more broadly. It was more likely voters in 2021 shied away from candidates who proudly took the abolitionist label than it was voters buying into a crime mongering campaign message, but only time will tell if Seattle trends back with the county or continues to elect more conservative politicians to its city’s offices. For this year, King County voters have told the GOP that politicizing crime for elections is not the winning answer among the other priorities they’re choosing from.

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