Democrats are trying to sort out what went wrong in the election and why the presence of Initiative 594 on the ballot didn’t motivate more of their voters to turn out.
Party leaders all along thought the popular measure requiring background checks be conducted on buyers of guns online and through private sales would spur some of those prone to skipping midterm elections to participate.
They believed a small boost of pro-Democrat voters in just the right places could swing a close race and maybe upend a targeted Republican.
It didn’t play out that way. Democrats lost seats in both chambers – sometimes in communities where the measure is passing handily.
Republicans picked up one seat in the Senate in south King County and four in the House, deposing three incumbent Democrats in the process. Those seats are in districts covering swaths of Pierce, Thurston, Clark, Mason and Kitsap counties.
Initiative 594 is passing in all those counties, except Mason, according to data assembled thus far by initiative supporters. Precinct-by-precinct details won’t be available until next month when election results are certified.
“I don’t think it hurt us but I don’t think it helped us to the degree that we thought it would,” admitted Adam Bartz, executive director of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.
One explanation is that in spite of polls detailing the measure’s popularity with voters, only a handful of Democrats associated themselves with the initiative. Only a few were like Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, who actively campaigned for it and went on to win with 54.5 percent.
Most Democratic candidates steered clear of the measure as best they could. They feared any overt demonstration of support would trigger a reaction from the NRA like in 1994 when the national gun rights group helped defeat Democrats who endorsed an assault weapons ban. The NRA flexed their muscle again three years later by helping upend a statewide gun control-related initiative.
Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said he didn’t view I-594 as a “positive tool” and knew Democratic candidates avoided using it because of what the NRA did in 1994.
Yet Hunt didn’t think it would have made a difference had they embraced it more strongly.
“We didn’t energize our base enough and the other side did,” he said. “I just think we got caught in the wave.”
Backers of Initiative 594 wonder if Democrats may revise their analysis when the final numbers are known for the election.
While I-594 is losing in several counties, it is passing on the strength of votes from Democrats, Republicans and independents where many of this year’s most contested legislative battles took place.
“We demonstrated we can take on the gun lobby and win,” said Geoff Potter, spokesman for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility that conducted the campaign.
“That’s a message candidates could hear and legislators should keep in mind going into the next session,” he said.
And one that Democrats may wish they had paid more attention to in the election.
Jerry Cornfield is a political reporter who covers Olympia for The Daily Herald in Everett, which is among the Washington state newspapers in the Sound Publishing group. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.