The Spokane Association of Realtors summoned nearly $250,000 in state and national independent expenditures to support City Council Candidates Jonathan Bingle and Mike Lish.
Now that the election totals have come in, was it worth it?
That all depends on your definition. In one sense, the more than $100,000 they spent on Bingle’s race was a smashing success — he won by more than 13 percentage points — while their larger investment of almost $145,000 for Lish came up oh-so-narrowly short. Zack Zappone, a progressive who campaigned with explicitly anti-Realtor messaging after losing out on their endorsement, squeaked by a little more than a percentage point.
“If I were the Realtors I would be embarrassed I spent so much money on Mike Lish,” says Jim Dawson, Eastern Washington director of the progressive activist organization Fuse. “How many times do they need to lose to stop spending so much money?”
In another sense, you could see the money spent on the Bingle race as the real waste — a 13 point victory probably didn’t need that much cash to win — and the razor-thin Lish race was the smart play. If anything, the Realtors could regret not spending more on the Lish race.
Darin Watkins, government affairs director for the Spokane Association of Realtors, notes that they also endorsed incumbent Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson before the primary. After the primary, however, their opponent was disqualified from the race for not living in the district, rendering it moot.
“I think more importantly, we were able to keep housing front and center as part of the political debate,” Watkins says. “We believe it’s one of the critical issues.”
Statewide, the Realtors were largely successful, handily winning the Seattle mayoral and council races they’d poured money into, and giving their biggest investment — Vancouver City Council candidate John Blom — a half percentage-point lead. Time will tell if that lead holds, however.
In fact, the Fuse pledge never uses the phrase "defund the police," though it does use the phrase "redirect police department funding to community-based alternatives."
While some people on the left argue that is defunding the police, Zappone wasn't one of them.
"We’re happy to take the free publicity for our organization," says Dawson.
Despite all these attack ads, and not being an incumbent, Zappone's margin of victory is nearly as close as Karen Stratton's re-election was two years ago.
3. Zack Zappone struggled in Shadle Park neighborhoods
If you want to understand what's unique about a candidate, instead of just a political party, you can't just look at one race. You've got to compare them.
At first glance, Zappone's map looks very similar to the victory maps of Karen Stratton and Candace Mumm. But when you actually compare the margins, you find that, while Zappone held his own in parts of low-income West Central and made significant improvements in the upper income southern Indian trail neighborhood, he struggled in middle-income places like the Garland neighborhood.
There are a lot of possibilities for why — maybe, for example, Zappone did a little better in some of the neighborhoods where he was already on the ballot when he ran for state rep last year.
Maybe it was about where Lish had better name recognition, or about where mailers or flyers were targeted. But my favorite theory? It's a high school rivalry thing.
Maybe voters in Shadle Park High school neighborhoods couldn't bear to vote for Zappone, who graduated from North Central High School, Shadle's bitter rival in the annual "Groovy Shoes" spirit competition.
5. The firefighters didn't turn on the firehose of PAC spending
But this time? The firefighters only gave $10,000 to progressive PACs, and their money was ultimately funneled to PACs associated with FUSE.
Indeed, the firefighter union's political efforts have been heavily criticized in the past. Four years ago, a fire union-backed PAC was behind a nasty smear of conservative candidate Matthew Howes. They were also fined in both 2015 and 2017 for not properly reporting their campaign spending.
But Marler says it's also a matter of having other things to focus on this time.
Marler says he thinks independent expenditures are "disgusting," despite a lot of his involvement in independent expenditures in the past.
"I hate that it is part of our politics," he says. "But as we’ve seen with the Realtors, if we’re not engaged at all then they get to completely steal the narrative and buy elections."
Then again, Zappone seemed to have held his own against intense spending without needing much help.
6. Kate Burke's victory four years ago looks all the more surprising
After getting shut out by two conservatives in a seven-candidate scrum in 2019's primary, Sherazi squeaked by the primary with only four votes this year over her left-leaning competitor.
But ultimately, Sherazi lost by more than 13 percentage points. Compared with Councilwoman Kate Burke's substantial victory over conservative Tim Benn just four years earlier, that represents a 30-point swing toward the right.
Drill down to the numbers, however, and it looks like the story is mostly about turnout.
But while turnout was low in District 1 again this year, the raw number of votes four years ago was far lower.
So the question is less about why Burke did better than Sherazi, and more about why Jonathan Bingle did much, much better than Benn.
The conservative turnout could have been a reaction to Burke's tenure. Burke had run a comparatively moderate campaign. But for much of her tenure on council, she did things that drove conservatives crazy, like chaining herself with other protesters of Spokane's homeless policy after police announced plans to clean up the homeless encampment outside City Hall.
While Sherazi brought a nuanced approach to many issues during the campaign, she actually had explicitly said on the record last year that she supported defunding the policing. (By that, she stressed in her post at the time, she only meant spending less funding on police militarization and more toward social services.)
Like Zappone, Sherazi was targeted with negative advertisements referring to her as "Radical Naghmana Sherazi." But Dawson, of FUSE, speculates that those ads hurt Sherazi a lot more.
But Dawson stresses that "Islamophobia is real... playing up that difference is going to hurt."
Meanwhile, negative mailers against Jonathan Bingle from a progressive PAC, 509 Forward, seemed particularly inert. The mailer quotes Bingle saying that government is "horribly inefficient," that he has "invested so much in prayer," and that he would "love to represent the area in the state legislature." It also includes a picture of Bingle at the Church At Planned Parenthood, a far-right anti-abortion protest with former City Councilman Mike Fagan.
But the mailer doesn't provide any context for the event, so voters who received the mailer just saw the candidate standing beside the former councilman their district had already elected twice.