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Originally published October 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 22, 2008 at 5:30 PM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Barack Obama and Dino Rossi? What's up with the Exurbs?

Move over Joe the Plumber. Election Day strategies should target Eddie and Edwina Exurb. Gov. Christine Gregoire and her Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, understand the exurbs can lead to a winning ride on Barack Obama's coattails.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

The other evening, I dished up turkey-and-black-bean chili, fiery fare I coated with a rich, smokey- chocolaty chili powder when a guest requested salt.

I was still recovering from that when a second guest announced she was voting for Barack Obama — woo hoo let's hear it for change! — and Dino Rossi for governor.

Sometimes there's no accounting for culinary or political taste.

For the next five hours, a dozen women, a diverse mix of Eastside and South King County working-in-and-out-of-the-home mothers served up discourse more piquant than my chili. Thanks to them, I now get the odd conundrum spotted during a recent drive near Highway 202 in eastern King County: an Obama/Biden yard sign perched side-by-side with one touting Dino Rossi. They were practically swaying in unpartisan harmony.

It felt wrong on so many levels. Strange bedfellows do not make good politics. Instead, they tend to cancel each other's votes — that is, when they aren't engaged in partisan bickering.

Yet, electing a Democrat and a Republican for balance is gaining currency. Washington has more registered voters than at any time in state history — more than 3.6 million people. Many live in the new communities sprouting up like mushrooms outside of Seattle. Voters in the exurbs are known to shift political allegiances on a dime.

"The only way I can see someone supporting both (Obama and Rossi) is if change is a very important component of what they're looking for," says Luis Fraga, an associate vice provost at the University of Washington and a longtime political scientist.

Evidence was at my kitchen table. One woman pointed out in some detail how Obama's criticism of the burgeoning federal deficit and his support for merit pay and accountability for teachers are themes echoed on the campaign stump by Rossi.

Another spoke up. Rossi supports vouchers; Obama is warming to them, saying he wants to see evidence they can work. Most Democrats head straight to "no" when vouchers are raised. Obama wants to shake up Washington; Rossi wants the same in Olympia.

My head began to spin and it wasn't the petite syrah.

The suburbs and exurbs will predict our near future. In 2006, Democrats won congressional seats in the nation's 50 biggest metropolitan areas by expanding into formerly Republican-leaning suburbs, according to the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation. If strange lawn-fellows and my dining companions are any bellwether, a political amalgam is in the offing.

Journalist and author Joel Garreau coined the phrase "edge city" for his 1991 book "Edge City: Life on the New Frontier," and predicted the cities sprouting up at major suburban freeway interchanges — think Issaquah or Federal Way — would transform American life. And politics. Nationwide, the exurbs will help deliver key states like Florida and North Carolina.

New York Times columnist David Brooks created an exurban archetype known as "Patio Man," a political centrist sick of the war, worried about his home's plummeting value and unsettled by the Bush administration's unsympathetic response to Hurricane Katrina. Patio Man isn't fazed by an African-American president because he lives and works in an area of increasing diversity.

I just hope Patio Man understands that this country's recovery is best overseen by a unified team. Barack Obama's efforts on our behalf are best helped by a slew of smart Democrats in Congress and in the governors' mansions. I hope Patio Man isn't so taken by Rossi's mantle of change that he misses efforts by the current governor, Christine Gregoire, to also change.

"Among the reasons our governor has taken some strong, quick stands to freeze hiring, limit travel and state funding is to escape the label of traditional tax-and-spend liberalism," says Fraga.

Out in the exurbs, static wages, job losses and home foreclosures have dimmed the lightness of suburban living. Economic fears are the companion most of us will take to the polls. Voters rightly want change.

Sometimes that means a new person, such as electing Obama. Other times it means keeping the same person, seasoned and willing to adapt as she goes along.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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