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The West Coast is now, officially, the blue Pacific

Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska)
Greg Nash
Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) leaves the Capitol following the last votes of the week on Friday, September 30, 2022. The House returns on Nov. 14 following the midterm elections.

American politics is experiencing something new beginning this month – an entirely blue Pacific coast.  

For the first time since the rise of the modern Republican Party prior to the Civil War, Democrats will hold every U.S. House district on the West Coast. CaliforniaOregon and Washington will still have Republicans in Congress but they represent the interior of those states and none of their districts reach the shoreline. 

Given the reigning conventional wisdom that the West Coast leans left, many may shrug off this development as unsurprising or even wonder why it had not happened before. As a historical phenomenon, however, it constitutes the culmination of a notable geographical shift in partisan identity.

From the Civil War in the 1860s to the Great Depression of the 1930s, Republicans dominated West Coast politics. From 1863 to 1867, during the 38th and 39th Congresses, they held every House seat from Pacific states, with all of those districts reaching the coastline. Even during the Depression, Republicans clung to some coastal districts, with Republican Richard J. Welch representing San Francisco for 12 terms from 1926 to 1949, and they came back strong in the region after World War Two. All three West Coast presidents — Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — were Republicans.

Democratic ascendency on the entire Pacific Coast is a late 20th Century development. At one time both Oregon and Washington were reliably Republican states. This changed during the 1960s but by then two new Pacific Coast states had entered the union, with Alaska represented by a single Republican, Rep. Don Young, for nearly five decades from 1973 until his death in 2022. The election of Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola to succeed Young, along with an upset victory by Democratic Rep. Maria Gluesenkamp Pérez in a rural district of southwest Washington gave Democrats their clean sweep of the West Coast.

In parts of California, particularly the far north and Orange County, this Democratic dominance does not reach very far inland, but the coastline is blue from Crescent City to San Diego, as are the coastal districts of Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Alaska. 

For the Pacific coast, it was a blue wave in 2022.

The last time Democrats won every congressional seat on the Pacific coast was 1858 when there were only two states and three house districts west of the Rocky Mountains. With the Civil War, Republicans gained near total dominance. Now the region has come full circle back to the Democrats.

The East Coast has never experienced anything similar. With more states, more diversity, more districts and more political history, no party ever gained complete control of the Atlantic seaboard. Even at the height of Democratic power during the Depression, a handful of Republicans clung to districts in the Northeast, just as during periods of Republican dominance during the late 1800s and early 1900s, Democrats held the Southeast. Even the resignation of southern members of Congress during the Civil War did not give Republicans control over all remaining districts on the East Coast.

Independent commissions draw district boundaries in most Pacific states. Democratic dominance does not come from partisan gerrymandering. It reflects the views of the majority living on the coast. Perhaps it’s in the water. Alaska retains two Republican senators but otherwise, Democrats hold every Senate seat on the West Coast, and Joe Biden carried 78 of the 81 electoral votes of Pacific states without breaking a sweat.

The 2022 midterm elections represented the culmination of a historic shift from a Republican tilt to Democratic dominance on the West Coast. It was not enough for Democrats to retain control of the U.S. House, however, and the new Republican House Speaker could still come from inland California.

­­­­Edward J. Larson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 16 books of American political, legal, and cultural history, lives on the West Coast overlooking the blue Pacific.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Alaska California Democratic Party Don Young Hawaii Joe Biden Mary Peltola Oregon Politics of the United States Republican Party Washington

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