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Democrats see Spokane County’s 6th district as up for grabs. Why haven’t they won it?

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 6, 2020

Zack Zappone, 2020 candidate for Washington State Representative, 6th legislative district, uses his bike to doorbell in the Indian Trail neighborhood, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Zack Zappone, 2020 candidate for Washington State Representative, 6th legislative district, uses his bike to doorbell in the Indian Trail neighborhood, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Flush with cash and confidence, Democrats again opened their wallets in an effort to flip Spokane County’s 6th Legislative District blue in 2020.

But despite outspending Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin, as they did in 2018, Democrats, again, fell short.

Democrats had a few reasons to hope for success in the district, which has had unanimous Republican representation in Olympia for a decade.

There was the allure of a presidential election year in which President Donald Trump was on the ballot, and Democrats expected a huge turnout. In 2016, the district’s growing number of registered voters only narrowly backed Trump over Hillary Clinton. In one of its two state House of Representatives seats, incumbent Rep. Jenny Graham won by less than a percentage point in 2018.

“There’s no doubt the district is tough,” said Zack Zappone, a political newcomer who failed to unseat incumbent Mike Volz this week. “I think the demographic trends are changing, it’s growing, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.”

But there also were clear obstacles for Democrats. Though heavily outspent, Republicans Volz and Graham had the power of incumbency and name recognition, while neither Democrat had ever run for legislative office.

The COVID-19 pandemic also prevented their respective opponents from embarking on the sort of hand-shaking, coalition-building campaign usually needed to win a tough race.

Then there are the voters who continue to back Republicans despite population growth and changing demographics in the district.

“I think the 6th District isn’t quite ready for West Side politics yet,” said Volz, who won a third term on Tuesday. “It’s been changing over the years, that’s pretty clear. But it’s still a pretty conservative district.”

This election was the Democrats’ last shot at winning a seat in the district before it is inevitably reshaped after the 2020 census, which will change its makeup in yet-to-be-determined ways.

Currently, it’s a mix of farm-country, small city and Spokane outskirts. The border wraps around Spokane’s core, grabbing the northernmost reaches of the city and the upper South Hill before spreading west over towns like Cheney, Airway Heights and Medical Lake.

What else?

Democrats in Washington have money, and they were willing to spend it.

Zappone and fellow Democrat Tom McGarry’s campaigns each received a $75,000 boost from House Democrats and $30,000 from the state Democratic party. Both spent more than double their opponents, according to the most recently available campaign finance reports.

Democrats running for the House of Representatives in the 6th District have outspent Republicans in every election since 2014.

That’s not a coincidence.

The 6th District is one of the few even up for grabs in Eastern Washington, noted Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner, a Republican who represented the district in the State Senate from 2011 -18.

“In some sense, what else are the Dems going to do over here?” Baumgartner asked.

Zappone was closest to unseating the incumbent . As of Friday, Volz had 51.8% of the vote, compared to 47.9% for Zappone.

Graham, seeking a second term, drew local media attention this year for her propensity to share stories from websites that spread conspiracy theories. Then, she earned national attention for the profane outburst she unleashed on the Inlander reporter who wrote about her.

She fared well against McGarry, a politically moderate real estate attorney who sought to contrast his demeanor with hers, using the slogan “a serious candidate for serious times.”

Volz leaned on his record in Olympia as proof of his fiscally conservative bona fides, and his résumé as assistant Spokane County treasurer to demonstrate his financial acumen.

Zappone supported education and infrastructure funding. As the campaign progressed, he questioned Volz’s voting record on LBGTQ issues, education funding, and health care.

He told The Spokesman-Review that there are “a lot of Republican lawmakers who hide behind ‘no taxes.’ ” Simultaneously, he found that voters often actually support individual programs like Paid Family and Medical Leave, and strong funding for education.

When he was able to talk to voters one-on-one, Zappone said voters were often unaware of Volz’s voting record on the programs and issues they viewed as important.

But the COVID-19 pandemic stunted campaigns this year, allowing for fewer of those face-to-face interactions between Zappone and 6th District residents.

Zappone struggled to connect with groups, like unions, that weren’t meeting during the pandemic. He only began doorbelling after the primary election and couldn’t host intimate, in-home events to build a grassroots campaign due to coronavirus concerns.

“The typical ways that you really build a lot of name recognition … were just impossible because of the virus,” said Lisa Brown, a longtime legislator in Spokane’s 3rd Legislative District.

“Despite that, I think he mounted this really successful campaign,” Brown said.

For “the core issues,” Volz said his win was validating. He’d argued all along that his voting record was in line with what 6th District residents want in Olympia.

“I don’t think it’s anti-tax, per se,” Volz said of the voters’ mindset. “I just think most voters don’t like the over-the-top prioritization of spending.”

An uncertain future

If Democrats want success in the 6th, they’ll have to plan for it.

“It’s that long game of organizing where you can actually make gains. I didn’t have that advantage,” Zappone said.

There’s high turnover among Democrats that run and organize campaigns from election to election in the district, Zappone said. He started from scratch when he filed to run for office in the last eligible week, noticing that Volz did not have an opponent.

“We don’t have a good way of building on that infrastructure,” Zappone said.

Though on different ends of the political spectrum, Brown and Baumgartner agree the voters of the 6th District are in tune and turn out.

Baumgartner described the district’s voters as fiscally conservative and suburban residents who show up and are well-educated about their candidates.

Democrats have failed to run candidates that appeal to those voters, Baumgartner said, and instead mirror the policies of the liberals who win on the West Side.

“Quite frequently, what the Dems do is they spend a lot of time on Twitter and listen to Seattle-area political consultants,” Baumgartner said. “They’d be better to look for somebody that has a military background and is pro-life and a very moderate Democrat.”

But Democrats aren’t totally persona non grata in the 6th.

In 2016, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray won a narrow majority of 6th District voters. Hillary Clinton fell short of a majority, but fared better in the 6th District than in Spokane County as a whole.

“I do see most of the 6th District as much more socially moderate than its current (representatives),” Brown said.

The redistricting

Legislative districts are redrawn every decade, and every district has to have roughly the same number of constituents.

Growth on the West Side has outpaced that of Eastern Washington since the last census in 2010, which will necessitate a reshuffling in districts like the 6th.

The 6th District, essentially, will have to broaden its borders. But it remains to be seen how the legislature will redraw the district, and what the political consequences will be.

Whatever form it takes, Zappone said Democrats will be able to look at results at the precinct level and take lessons away from the 2020 election.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us in Eastern Washington,” Zappone said. “Who knows. We’ll see. There’s opportunity.”

The cities and towns within the 6th are changing, too.

Volz can remember the empty fields in Airway Heights, where property owners would allow him to plant roadside campaign signs. Now, many of those fields are filled with apartments and businesses.

“The population growth has been tremendous,” Volz said.

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