With the filing period for candidates in Washington state over, we can really begin analyzing where the hot races are and how majorities may shift in the state House and Senate. The bottom line is, it appears likely Republicans will make gains in Olympia, but to actually take the majority in either house they will have to virtually run the table when it comes to competitive races.
Before looking at specifics, there are two points that must be made regarding legislative races.
First, legislative contests are heavily impacted by the big picture, national trends, and races at the top of the ticket. Even the most popular, well known legislator will be thrown out of office in a swing district if the national tide is running against his or her party. In addition, legislative candidates benefit greatly from get out the vote and other organizational activities generated by strong congressional and statewide campaigns.
In this regard, the playing field tilts slightly in favor of the Democrats. The presidential contest is competitive nationally, but it is highly unlikely the Romney campaign will spend much time or money in Washington state. President Barack Obama is likely to carry Washington, meaning Republicans in most of the battleground legislative districts will have to run several percentage points ahead of the top of the ticket.
Organizationally, the McKenna campaign and the Republican Governor’s Association will be very helpful to Republican legislative candidates. But as recently as 2004, Washington state was targeted by both the Bush re-election campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (in support of Rep. George Nethercutt’s campaign against Sen. Patty Murray). That level of money and staff support will not be there for the GOP this year.
One bit of good news for Republicans is the fact that in the open seat race in the 6th congressional district (Tacoma, Kitsap, Olympic Peninsula) a serious Republican has emerged. Bill Driscoll has never run for office, but he is a retired Marine Corp officer and a member of the Weyerhaeuser family. He began the campaign by putting $500,000 of his own money into the race. The 6th is still a likely Democratic district, but Driscoll appears to be far more viable than the Republican Party activists who had announced earlier, and this will aid GOP candidates in a few key competitive races for the Legislature.
Second, unlike almost any other level of campaigning, party insiders can move large amounts of money into a legislative race overnight, and local fundraising by individual candidates is much less important than it is in other races. PACs and party committees are important in races Congress, for example, but candidates are expected to raise roughly two-thirds of the money at home, from individual donors.
In highly competitive legislative races, on the other hand, the state parties, the caucus political committees, and Olympia PACs can, and often do, provide the bulk of the money. This means a candidate can raise very little money himself or herself, but if the party leadership decide to target a race they can move the money necessary to make it competitive.
Finally, polling is virtually non-existent in legislative races. Our next chance to handicap the legislature will come once we see the results of the August top two primary.
In the state Senate, Democrats have unexpectedly been able to put enough Republican seats in play to greatly diminish the GOP’s chances to pick up the three seats they need for a 25-24 majority.
Democrats appear to be conceding their open seat in the 25th district (Puyallup and Sumner) to Republican Rep. Bruce Dammeier. Republicans need a net gain of two more seats. There are seven Senate races that appear competitive or potentially competitive — but Republicans currently hold four of those seats. To win a majority the GOP will have to successfully defend four vulnerable seats, and defeat two of the three Democratic incumbents they are targeting.
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