Forty-six. That’s the number of votes by which Ferndale’s Doug Ericksen defeated Bellingham’s Pinky Vargas to hold onto his 42nd District Washington State Senate seat in 2018.
Just four years earlier, Ericksen’s defeat of now-Bellingham mayor Seth Fleetwood was nearly 9,000 votes. His initial election to State Senate in 2010 had a nearly 12,000-vote margin of victory.
On the State House of Representatives side in 2020, Democrat Alicia Rule ousted two-time Republican incumbent Luanne Van Werven by over 2,000 votes. Van Werven had won re-election in 2018 by just 81 votes, two years after winning by more than 6,000.
Democrat Sharon Shewmake also retained her House seat by roughly 3,000-votes over Jennifer Sefzik, two years after defeating Republican incumbent Vincent Buys by just under 1,000; Buys had won in 2016 by over 11,000 votes.
So how have local Democrats made such large gains in voter support during recent years, and what is likely driving these shifting results at the ballot box?
As it turns out, the effect is likely due to multiple demographic shifts caused by a wide variety of trends in who lives here, how they work and how each political party gets its messages out.
More people, more votes
The 42nd Legislative District covers the majority of Whatcom County’s 2,500 square miles, including a third of Bellingham, the county seat.
As of 2021, the district has 109,194 active voters spread across more than 120 precincts, including those of growing cities such as Ferndale and Lynden. In general, both Bellingham and outlying areas are growing in population, but U.S. Census data from the American Community Survey helps breaks things down a bit more regarding growth between 2015 and 2019.
Places like the Ferndale Census County Division (CCD) — a geographic area including the city of Ferndale, land to its west and east, and the city of Everson — saw a 14% increase in overall population in the last five years, with a 12.4% increase in eligible voters (defined as anyone 18 and older).
Similarly, the Blaine CCD (which includes Birch Bay, Blaine and eastward land about half the distance to Lynden) has seen a 10% increase in its overall population, adding 11.2% more potential voters.
The East Whatcom CCD, which includes the rest of Whatcom County from Deming eastward, has shown more modest population growth with just over 4% growth in possible voters. Bellingham, meanwhile, has seen a population growth of 5.6% and a 7.1% increase in potential voters; about a third of its population is in the 42nd District, with the rest in the 40th.
So, what does one make of these numbers?
Riley Sweeney, spokesperson for the City of Ferndale, says it’s at least partially due to an influx of younger, more liberal-minded people escaping higher home prices in more urban areas like Bellingham, Seattle and elsewhere.
“We’re seeing lots of folks move to Ferndale, who’ve just gotten here in the last five years,” he said. “They’re buying homes and they’re starting families. And that is changing the character of the community very rapidly.”
One-third of Ferndale residents, Sweeney said, have arrived in town during the last decade, leaving Ferndale consistently vying for the title of fastest-growing city north of Everett. Over the last several decades, Ferndale has gone from a community rooted in agriculture and refinery work to a more diverse set of employers.
Others, unable to find affordable homes in Bellingham, continue either commuting into Bellingham or working remotely. New people have also brought new ideas and fresh leadership. The Ferndale City Council, Sweeney says, has undergone 100% turnover in the last four years, something that’s fairly rare for a municipality without a large-scale crisis or scandal.
Longtime Whatcom County realtor Mike Kent echoes some of Sweeney’s comments on what’s bringing people to places outside Bellingham. Lack of affordability and supply is one factor, but remote work is another.
“Digital nomads” — tech-based workers who are working from home or otherwise remotely — now have the ability to work from virtually anywhere. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend, and Kent said he thinks it will only continue to gain momentum.
And these workers appear to mostly be coming from outside Whatcom County; Kent said that seven of his last 10 home sales were to residents from outside the area, and other realtors tell Kent they’re seeing the same trend. It’s a trend likely to continue, as some younger residents leave for cheaper housing in the Midwest or Carolinas, seeking to raise families in more economically friendly places while maintaining remote work with their current companies.
Current trends have brought economic stability to the area, as well. Kent cited a recent real estate report showing that the average Whatcom County homeowner holds around 50% equity in their house, up about 20% from 2017.
Meanwhile, homes in places like Blaine and Birch Bay are quickly closing the gap on price in relation to Bellingham properties. A recent Windermere Economics report showed the average sale price of single-family Blaine homes up 15.5% in 2020 compared with 2019, and Ferndale prices up 11.7%.
“If it continues, it’ll almost be a blur between Bellingham and outer areas,” Kent said.
Shifts by precinct
To win public office in the 42nd District between about 2008 and 2015, Sweeney said, Republicans typically needed to obtain about two-thirds of county voters and a third of Bellingham.
Since then, however, Democrats have been reliably receiving about 35 to 40% of county votes, while maintaining percentages in Bellingham. And that, he said, seems to be just enough.
“While the changes that have happened may not be drastic, in terms of total numbers, you total that up in all the precincts across the county and it becomes kind of a powerful swing,” he said.
A look at recent precinct data for Ferndale seems to support that thinking.
Ericksen easily won all of his Ferndale precincts in 2010 and 2014, but lost two of them — Precincts 505 and 506 — to Vargas in 2018.
Van Werven, meanwhile, won eight of nine Ferndale-associated precincts in 2016, seven in 2018 and just four in her 2020 loss. Precincts 505 and 506 were reliably purple or blue in all three elections.
The trend in Ferndale is emblematic of changes nationwide, Sweeney said: Republicans have been slowly losing suburbs across the U.S. as both a reflection of national politics and demographic diversity trends. Ferndale, in fact, used to often split its tickets between Democrat federal support and Republican local support, he added. But not anymore.
“You don’t see that level of ticket-splitting anywhere in the U.S., and that also is true in Ferndale,” Sweeney said.
Voter turnout has also surged nationwide in recent elections, and that change is reflected in local politics as well. Voter turnout in Whatcom County in the 2020 general election was nearly 88%, up from 77% in 2018.
Regarding district congressional races, both house seats saw an increase of about 20,000 votes between the 2020 and 2016 races. In the Senate, about 12,000 more votes were cast than the same race in 2010.
High turnout, more spending
Todd Donovan, a Whatcom County councilmember and political science professor at Western Washington University, said that while it’s hard to know if more Democrats have actually moved into the 42nd District, several factors have buoyed their support there.
The first is an increase in dollars towards district races from the House Democratic Caucus, which put substantial financial support behind Shewmake and Rule in their successful campaigns. The second is the apparent trend in Democratic turnout during high-turnout elections.
“Democrats just seem to do better in county races, or maybe just generally, when there’s higher turnout,” he says. “The mid-term election in 2018 — it’s maybe not people moving in as much as on-the-fence Democrat voters get mobilized.”
Sweeney also points out that Democrats have also concentrated recently on “get out the vote” drives, especially in his city of Ferndale.
Charlie Crabtree, Republican chairman for the 42nd District in 2020, tends to agree that the district — which in 2010 elected three GOP candidates for the first time in 25 years — is seeing a multi-faceted change.
The North Bellingham and Ferndale areas have seen population growth between 2016 and 2020, he said, and new apartment complexes in Ferndale may have brought in younger voters less likely to lean Republican.
Even strongholds like Lynden have subtly shifted, from 90% Republican to between 70 to 80% in presidential election years, he said. Funding, he added, has been a substantial driver at the state level.
“In my memory, 2014 on — this 42nd District has been money, money, money,” Crabtree said. “We have been targets for six years of both parties.”
Information from FollowTheMoney.org seems to support this idea, as overall spending on 42nd District Senate campaigns jumped from about $192,000 in 2010 to more than $890,000 in both 2014 and 2018.
Despite both sides writing ever-larger checks, Crabtree said Democrats still outspent Republicans by about a two-to-one margin in the district’s recent house races.
“We did as good a job as we’ve ever done,” he said of GOP turnout in 2020. “They did better. They had more money, more resources, more assets … and that’s what it takes.”
A knife’s edge
Complete data from the 2020 U.S. Census, as well as the 2022 election cycle, will shed further light on the direction of Whatcom County politics. The district will also undergo its first redistricting period since 2011 this year, with changes taking effect for the 2022 election.
Whether the 42nd district becomes bluer is anybody’s guess, but both Crabtree and Donovan — despite their political differences — think that recent elections prove any race can still go in either direction.
“It’s still kind of a knife-edge district,” Donovan said.