Some say the area’s shifting demographics give Dems. an advantage, others say it’s the strength of their political party
By Ian Haupt
This article was produced for Journalism 497B. It may appear in a different form at bellinghammatters.com.
Two Democrats will represent Washington’s 42nd Legislative District for the first time since 1996 after both Republican candidates conceded in two of the state’s most tightly contested races on election night.
The 42nd Legislative District consists of the majority of Whatcom County, bisecting Bellingham, and has been home to close races for the state House and Senate for the past few years. Some experts say the trend is true historically.
“Nothing would surprise me in the 42nd District,” said Chris Vance, former Republican party chairman and senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
Calling the district the “most contested battleground in the state,” Vance said he remembered when he was a student at Western in 1980 there was a hotly contested state House race between Mary Kay Becker and Joe Elenbaas. Incumbent Becker won by just over a thousand
votes with 19,425 (51.66%) to Elenbaas’ 18,173 (48.34%), according to the Secretary of State website. Forty years later, the percentages look similar.
As of noon on Nov. 17, Blaine Councilwoman Alicia Rule, a Democrat, led Republican state Rep. Luanne Van Werven 47,213 votes (51.14%) to 45,028 (48.77%) for the 42nd Legislative District Position 1 seat, according to the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office. First-term incumbent Democratic state Rep. Sharon Shewmake led Republican challenger Jennifer Sefzik of Custer by 47,640 (51.68%) to 44,441 (48.21%) for the Position 2 seat.
In 2018, the races were just as close and showed Democrats gaining influence in the district. Rep. Shewmake narrowly beat out Republican incumbent Vincent Buys by a percentage point; Rep. Van Werven barely kept her seat in the House; and Sen. Doug Eriksen beat Pinky Vargas by less than a hundred votes. “Very, very close races are the norm now in the 42nd District,” Vance said.
He said it’s because Whatcom is similar to Washington state as a whole. “You’ve got the liberal city and rural countryside,” Vance said. “And that produces really close races.” He added that tight races usually attract party funding.
Political parties at the national and state level prioritize funding to the most competitive races, he said. The race for the first seat in the district – Rule beating out incumbent Van Werven – reached a total of $1,465,476 in contributions, which was the second most expensive race in the state, according to data from the state Public Disclosure Committee.
Whatcom Democrats Chair Andrew Reding said it was their strength as a political party that swept the state House seats in the 42nd Legislative District blue. “Elsewhere in the state, there are essentially no strong county parties,” Reding said. “Ours is extremely strong and growing.”
Reding said the Whatcom Democrats also used campaign strategies that the Washington Democratic party wouldn’t do.
“We did a lot of things that broke the rules,” he said, referring to the rules of the national and state Democratic parties. “Everything we did was legal, but [we did] things the state and general party told us not to do.” For instance, socially distanced door-to-door campaigning, fundraising and registering people to vote.
Whatcom Democrats raised over $100,000 for the campaigns, Reding said.
Closing in on the county record of 87.9% from 2008, voter turnout reached 87.8% this year, according to data from the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office. While all the ballots have yet to be counted, an estimated 139,422 ballots were cast in Whatcom County. This is about a 20% increase (more than 24,000 additional voters) from the turnout in 2016, which was 114,920.
Sefzik, Rep. Shewmake’s challenger for the district’s second seat, said in a Facebook concession post that the Republicans defeat was largely due to new residents — likely from urban areas — changing the demographics of the district.
“This is not where we had hoped to be, but it is reality,” Sefzik wrote in the post. “The demographics of the 42nd District have changed, with thousands of newcomers the last two years. It was simply too much to overcome.”
According to the City of Bellingham website, Bellingham gained more than 3,000 residents from 2018 to 2020, and Sefzik was behind by a little more than 3,000 votes when she conceded. However, the 42nd District only encompasses northern Bellingham neighborhoods.
According to estimations based on the most recent U.S. census data by worldpopulationreview.com, Whatcom County had an estimated growth of about 8,000 residents in the last two years.
Beth Kirk, a volunteer for the Whatcom Republicans, emphasized how strong both Republican candidates were and said she was sad to see them concede. She said the loss was likely due to the Democrats’ funding, while also claiming that the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office vote count may be incorrect due to possible tampering — a claim that has also been used by President Donald Trump in the presidential race.
“That’s just what I’m hearing,” Kirk said, “but I’m only a volunteer.”
Election officials across the country say no irregularities, such as voter fraud, affected the outcome of the presidential election.
Whatcom County Auditor Diana Bradrick said the auditor’s office is following their normal elections process and is not aware of any issues with the vote count at this time.
“No there hasn’t been any tampering or voter fraud that I’m aware of,” Bradrick said. She added that anyone with evidence of possible voter fraud contact her at the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office. Bradrick said she had not received any claims of voter fraud but would investigate any claims she is made aware of.