After a crowded and confusing primary race to replace Mayor Ed Murray, it’s down to two candidates: former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and civic activist Cary Moon. With most of the ballots counted, Durkan has 28.7 percent of the votes cast for 21 different candidates. Moon, in second place, has 17.4 percent – and has steadily closed the gap with Durkan as late votes came in. (Nikkita Oliver, in third place, has yet to concede, but nothing in four days’ worth of published totals suggests she can catch Moon. It’s over.)
Durkan enters the fall campaign as the strong favorite to become Seattle’s mayor, and many observers are already assuming her election is inevitable.
They shouldn’t. Cary Moon can beat Jenny Durkan.
To be sure, Durkan has some formidable advantages. In the primary, she was the near-unanimous pick of Seattle’s political and civic establishment, inheriting much of the support that, until April, made the re-election of Ed Murray seem inevitable. She will be able to raise enormous amounts of money, and will also benefit from third party spending (mostly from business PACs) that Moon will get little of. Plus, her family is both wealthy and well-connected, and Durkan’s federal background meant she can also pull in celebrity national endorsements like former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a hero among Seattle’s legions of Donald Trump critics.
But Moon has advantages, too. And Durkan has vulnerabilities.
Start with those primary results. Durkan nearly doubled Moon’s vote total in the early going – but just as there was clear establishment support for Durkan, critics of Seattle’s status quo – especially housing and homelessness policies, police reform, and Seattle’s widening gap between our haves and have-nots – split their votes among all of Durkan’s five major opponents. In particular, Moon, Nikkita Oliver, and Bob Hasegawa all clearly ran in opposition to the business-as-usual approach represented by Murray and Durkan. Durkan, at week’s end, had 48,193 votes. Combined, Moon, Oliver and Hasegawa drew 70,325 votes. That’s nearly 60 percent voting for the outsiders among these four (including the only two people of color among the six major candidates), going into a general election where the average voter will be younger, less affluent, and less white than in the primary. Viewed through that lens alone, Durkan suddenly seems quite vulnerable.
Of course, Moon still has to win over the people who didn’t vote for her. Her campaign should be looking at several priorities in its race against Durkan, but the very first priority, which she’s already begun to do, is to court the endorsements, and then the voters and ideally some of the donors and volunteers, of Oliver and Hasegawa.
That’s by no means a given. Oliver finished a strong third running with the support of the newly formed People’s Party, in direct opposition to not just Durkan but the entire local Democratic Party. Moon, who like most Seattle politicos identifies as Democratic, will have to make the case to Oliver and her voters that not all Democrats are the same, and that she shares far more of Oliver’s agenda than Jenny Durkan ever will.
For the voters, part of Moon’s challenge will simply lie in introducing herself. Moon got important support in the primary, most notably with The Stranger’s endorsement (without which, Oliver likely beats her). But before this year’s campaign, Moon was virtually unknown to the average voter; her highest-profile past work was with her opposition to the downtown tunnel project. In hindsight, that looks remarkably prescient – but it was also several years ago. Neither Moon nor Durkan has ever held elected office, but Durkan at least can point to a high-level public position as U.S. Attorney for Western Washington. Moon still needs to prove to most voters that she has the chops to be a big city mayor, and to demonstrate what her priorities as mayor would be.
Durkan’s experience is her strength, but it’s also a significant vulnerability. Beyond being widely viewed as a representative of Seattle’s civic establishment, she’s not well-defined. Moon can help do that. Durkan’s pro-law enforcement background, as both a U.S. Attorney and a prosecutor, means that Moon can tie her to the widespread local establishment resistance (including the last three mayors) to taking seriously the need for wholesale reform of the Seattle Police Department. In particular, Durkan’s refusal as U.S. Attorney in 2010 to prosecute on federal charges the SPD killer of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams should be known to every single Seattle voter by November – and by contrast, Moon needs to stake out a strong pro-reform position. No other single issue is as likely to help mobilize Oliver and Hasegawa supporters.
Durkan has also not been clearly defined on how she would respond to the ill-effects of Seattle’s current population boom. For over a decade, establishment politicians like Murray have actively courted support by shoveling as much corporate welfare as they could find into developer and real estate pockets. Durkan inherits much of that support, whereas Moon made her name opposing the tunnel as, basically, a multi-billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded development scheme. Moon needs to make the case that addressing Seattle’s affordable housing crisis requires radical solutions, not simply the nibbling around the edges (while things continue to worsen) proposed by Durkan – and that creating meaningful amounts of affordable housing is also the single best way to address Seattle’s skyrocketing rates of homelessness. And Moon needs to make the case that her own personal wealth doesn’t blind her to the needs of Seattle’s less fortunate.
It will take money for Moon to be able to clearly define both herself and Durkan by November. Most voters never see a political candidate in person, and far more people vote in the November election than the August one. In the most recent similar elections, in August 2013, about 142,000 people voted for Seattle mayor (with a similarly competitive multi-candidate field), but in November of 2013 over 202,000 people voted for the same office. Compared to primary voters, the new November voters are almost by definition less engaged and less likely to know who the candidates are and what they stand for.
Moon’s fundraising in the primary (about $150,000) was only a third of Durkan’s. Now that she’s Durkan’s sole opponent, Moon will also need to court some of the primary donor money that went elsewhere – and Seattle’s new Democracy Voucher program doesn’t extend to the mayor’s race this year. Moon doesn’t need to equal Durkan’s fundraising, but she does needs to raise enough money to be competitive with Durkan in getting her message out. Moreover message needs to be clear and memorable enough to withstand Durkan’s inevitable October advertising blitz and high-profile establishment endorsements
Framing the Debate
Both women present as likeable, thoughtful, and competent – Moon is solid on this score, but she can’t make up the ground she needs to against Durkan simply by having a more winning or sympathetic personality or promising to “get things done” more effectively. Seattle’s century-long failure to elect a woman as mayor won’t be an issue this year, either.
Many of these are steps that political campaigns take routinely, but routine alone won’t be enough for Moon to win. Her best hope – and probably her only hope – for overtaking Durkan is to turn the race between the two into a referendum. If you like how things are going in Seattle – a booming economy and population, construction everywhere – vote Durkan. If you think Seattle needs a corrective to inadequate infrastructure investment, traffic gridlock, overflowing schools, a city government that shuts out the concerns of many of its residents, and policies whose affordability “solution” is simply to force any household that doesn’t have a six-figure income to leave town – vote Moon.
That focus would draw the ire of the Seattle Times and the city’s business establishment – and the likely support of The Stranger, Seattle Weekly (which endorsed Oliver in the primary), many of the supporters and legislative district endorsers of Oliver and Hasegawa, and more than a few backers of Mike McGinn (who also once won election as an outsider) and Jessyn Farrell. That leaves the younger, less affluent, and more non-white electorate that didn’t vote in August to tip the balance.
In that scenario, if you’re Cary Moon, you’ve got to like your chances.