PAC Spending Pays Off, Sawant’s In Trouble, and Other Lessons from Election Night

Yes, those are District 3 campaign mailers I received this year. No, that is not even all of them.

Seattle voters sent mixed messages in Tuesday’s primary election, backing many of the candidates who were supported by hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent spending by two conservative-leaning PACs while sending three incumbent city council members to the general election at the top of their respective packs, although some of those incumbents will face a tougher road than others.

Lightning rod city council member Kshama Sawant got less than a third of the vote in her reelection bid in District 3, leading second runner-up Egan Orion by just nine points (33 to 24) in a six-person race. Orion benefited from an incendiary anti-Sawant campaign funded by People for Seattle, the PAC started by her former council colleague Tim Burgess, as well as independent spending by the conservative Moms for Seattle PAC and the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, the political arm of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

In District 5, incumbent Debora Juarez was doing a bit better than Sawant, with 42 points to challenger Ann Davison Sattler’s 28 percent in a six-way race. (Sattler, whose campaign has been promoted heavily by the online group Safe Seattle, did not get the support of any PAC.) And in District 1 (West Seattle), incumbent Lisa Herbold got 48 percent in a three-way race, besting challenger Phil Tavel, who was supported by People for Seattle, Moms, and CASE but barely topped 33 percent of the vote.

In District 2, Tammy Morales (45 percent) and Mark Solomon (25 percent) will advance to the general; in District 4, Alex Pedersen (45 percent) and Shaun Scott (19 percent) will move forward; in District 6, Dan Strauss (31 percent) and Heidi Wills (23 percent) will advance; and in District 7, the winners are Andrew Lewis (29 percent) and Jim Pugel (24 percent).

So what should we make of these results? A few early takeaways:

1) PAC money (maybe) matters; democracy vouchers (maybe) don’t.

A lot has been made of the fact that Seattle voters now have the ability to direct public funds to the candidate or candidates of their choice, through property-tax-funded system called democracy vouchers. (Yes, that’s a link to my own story). The idea was that by giving every Seattle voter $100 to spend as they want in the primary and general elections, democracy vouchers would help temper the influence of corporate money in local politics.

But in every race but two (more on those in a moment), upstart conservative PACs—with a heavy assist from legacy groups like CASE—managed to push relatively obscure candidates through to the general election by spending huge amounts of money on campaigns targeting incumbents or presumptive frontrunners like Tammy Morales. In nearly every election where People for Seattle and Moms for Seattle bombarded voters with negative ads and mailers, their candidate moved through to the general election.

Overall, PACs have reported spending more than $875,000 in the primary election alone, a number that is likely to rise as late reports come in. That number is larger than the total amount of independent expenditures on all nine primary and general city council elections in 2015.

Moms for Seattle spent about $33,000 in each of four target districts, bombarding voters with oversized mailers featuring heavily Photoshopped images on one side and the group’s endorsed candidates on the other. Given that two of their candidates (Michael George in the 7th and Pat Murakami in the 3rd) didn’t make it out of the primary, tonight was a mixed result that probably didn’t justify an outlay of more than $130,000.

People for Seattle, a PAC started by former city council member Tim Burgess, seems to have been more effective. In almost every case, the candidates People for Seattle supported were also backed by the Chamber’s Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy PAC, providing a double punch of conventional campaign materials bolstered by negative, and in many cases inaccurate or misleading, mail.

In District 1, Herbold challenger Tavel—who got 18 percent of the vote against Herbold in 2015 despite being endorsed by the Seattle Times—benefited from nearly $34,000 in spending from People for Seattle, more than half of that targeting Herbold. (CASE threw in another $102,000).

In District 2,  sleeper candidate Solomon—a civilian employee of the Seattle Police Department with no prior involvement in local elections—benefited from $23,000 from People for Seattle, including $2,700 in negative mailers targeting Morales (whose name the group’s reports consistently and inexplicably misspell “Moralas.”) CASE spent another $88,000 on Solomon.

In District 3, People for Seattle spent $12,500 against Sawant, $12,500 targeting a Sawant challenger, Zach DeWolf, and another $15,000 supporting Orion. (CASE spent another $122,000 on Orion, and $12,000 against Sawant)

In District 4, the PAC spent $19,000 backing Pedersen, who happens to be Burgess’ former council aide, and $11,000 targeting Emily Myers, a UW doctoral student who had labor backing and came in fourth. (Pedersen got a $13,000 boost from CASE).

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People for Seattle stayed out of Districts 5, where they endorsed Juarez, and 6 and 7, where three of their non-endorsed but recommended candidates, Heidi Wills in District 6 and Jim Pugel and Andrew Lewis in District 7, came through. CASE spent $6,900 on Juarez, $6,600 on Wills, $6,600 on Jay Fathi, $12,000 on Michael George (D7), and $6,000 on Pugel.

Other notable expenditures from legacy PACs include $148,000 from UNITE HERE 8, the New York City-based labor union, supporting Andrew Lewis.

Overall, PACs have reported spending more than $875,000 in the primary election alone, a number that is likely to rise as late reports come in. That number is larger than the total amount of independent expenditures on all nine primary and general city council elections in 2015.

2) Seattle’s NIMBY backlash has shifted. It’s now a backlash against progressive approaches to homelessness.

Few of the 14 candidates who made it through this year’s primary came out of the traditional neighborhood movement, with the possible exception of Pedersen, who endorsed throwback neighborhood activist Bill Bradburd over now-council member Lorena Gonzalez and called the city’s modest efforts to increase density in single-family areas a “backroom deal for real estate developer upzones” in newsletter posts that he has since deleted.

That doesn’t mean the council is about to get more progressive; it seems just as likely that the backlash will result in a slightly more conservative council. (Pedersen, the clear frontrunner in District 4, once wrote that Seattle is a “Mecca” for homeless people because it offers such generous services—a position that no one on the current council would say out loud.)

What has changed is that the more conservative candidates who will be on your general-election ballot are activated not by housing but by the related issue of homelessnesss, and what they see as the city’s failure to sufficiently address “disorder” such as trash and tents in public rights-of-way. Many of them don’t see housing and homelessness as related issues. Tavel, in District 1, has said that homelessness is primarily a mental health or drug issue, rather than an issue of affordability; Wills says the city should “no longer condone” people sleeping outside and has suggested sheltering homeless people in shipping containers; and Davison Sattler, challenging Juarez, said at a recent candidate forum that if homeless people refuse to accept shelter or services, there should be “consequences,” and that the police should be “allowed to do their jobs.”

3) Incumbents who are responsive to their districts, rather than citywide (or national) concerns fared best.

It’s no coincidence that Lisa Herbold, whose newsletters are a deep dive into the minutiae of district-level constituent service, is doing well compared to Sawant, whose agenda of upending global capitalism while saving rock clubs outside her district has alienated many of her constituents. (Debora Juarez, who’s known on the second floor as DJD5, is also single-mindedly district-focused, but Sattler has been campaigning hard and has a surprisingly strong base in the north Seattle district). Since Seattle moved to district elections, in 2015, local politics have become even more local, and Sawant’s constituents—67 percent of whom voted for a different candidate—may have started wondering where she’s been. (Contrast tonight’s result with the 2015 primary, when Sawant took 56 percent.)

4) Don’t write off the progressives yet. In every race but District 4, the frontrunner is backed by progressive groups, whether it’s labor (Herbold; Morales; Andrew Lewis in the 7th); socialists (Sawant), or the Stranger, whose endorsement probably boosted Dan Strauss, an aide to retiring District 7 council member Sally Bagshaw, a few points in the 6th. Even Shaun Scott, a Democratic Socialists of America-affiliated candidate who emerged from the primary with 19 percent to Pedersen’s 45 percent in the 4th, beat out a traditional labor candidate, Myers, to move forward to the general.

11 thoughts on “PAC Spending Pays Off, Sawant’s In Trouble, and Other Lessons from Election Night”

  1. Here is another way to look at the race: Endorsements matter. In every race but one, the winner was endorsed by The Stranger, while the runner-up was endorsed by The Seattle Times. In District 4 the situation was reversed, with the Times endorsing the winner, and The Stranger endorsing the runner up. This means that unless you got endorsed by one of the two major newspapers, you didn’t advance.

    In other words, money doesn’t matter. You better get the endorsement of one of the two newspapers, otherwise you are toast. It is also quite likely that after the general election, those that got the endorsement of The Stranger will win every single race. Even it they don’t, getting the endorsement of weekly is more important than having the support of a PAC.

  2. With respect to the efficaciousness of PAC money in D1, there were only two challengers to incumbent Herbold. I don’t think it took a political genius to figure out that Tavel was going to be the one to make the cut so I don’t give the PACs credit for pushing ANYBODY through the primary. I can’t imagine any scenario with Kolding advancing, so I think all that PAC money was wasted…unless the intent was to try to get Tavel respectable numbers so he would be seen as a viable candidate in the general election.

  3. With regard to the vouchers, might it be that some voters were waiting to see how the primaries shook out? If someone’s looking to unseat a particularly bad incumbent, perhaps the logic is that the money is most efficiently used for anything-but-X support once it’s known exactly who’ll be running against X. Call it the voucher version of negative campaigning.

  4. We need fewer councilmembers to be “district-focused.” It takes five votes for anything to pass the council. I live in D4. I need Lisa Herbold and Debora Juarez to care about bike lanes on NE 35th Ave, not just what happens in West Seattle and Northgate. Likewise I need my councilmember to care about what happens on Capitol Hill, downtown, etc, because that’s my city too.

    Splitting concerns that affect the entire city into bite-size chunks is inefficient and ineffective. District elections was a bad idea.

  5. Alienating constituents is certainly what cost Sawant my vote. I voted for her before, but the Showbox was the last straw. She seems so much more concerned with hijacking (not leading or creating) popular movements for her own aggrandizement rather than actually responding to the concerns of the district. I voted for Bowers, but will vote Orion in the general.

    1. Hi Gitai Ben-Ammi,

      So you voted for socialist Kshama Sawant in the past?
      That’s excellent!
      Whereas you voted against Kshama at last week’s “Primary” election?
      That’s your right, but that’s the opposite of excellent!

      It’s okay if you oppose some — or even all — of Kshama Sawant’s ideas/policies/actions.
      Regardless, as a member of the 99 Per Cent, of the working class, you’re both honor-bound and duty-bound to vote for Kshama.

      Why?
      Because Kshama is a workers’ delegate, on a worker’s wage.

      Whereas if you vote for the “Seattle Chamber-Pot of Commerce Candidate”, or if you don’t vote at all, you’d be committing a (mild form of) mad treason.

      So are you a “traitor”, or are you a fighter?
      That’s the question you have to ask yourself.

      https://www.kshamasawant.org/

      https://www.socialistalternative.org/

  6. There are many mistakes in this article. People for Seattle did not recommend Jim Pugel AND Andrew Lewis. It was Michael George not Lewis.

    Also, at the start you say Michael George from D1 – he’s in D7

    1. Unfortunately, I’ve made that typo of mixing up 7 and 1 frequently and will probably do so again, but thanks for pointing out, albeit rudely!

      From People for Seattle’s endorsement email, here is the list of people that they recommended in District 7:

      In Council Districts 6 and 7, People for Seattle did not make endorsements because there were multiple candidates in each district that were equally qualified and met the group’s good governance criteria. People for Seattle believes Seattle residents will be well served by selecting any of the following candidates:
      […]

      Council District 7 Michael George, Andrew Lewis, Jim Pugel or Jason Williams

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