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Fight for state Senate control could enter unknown territory

With Rodney Tom deciding against seeking re-election, Republicans seem in good position. But there are no guarantees.
Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon, center, celebrates in 2013 after being chosen at president pro tempore by a mostly Republican vote.

Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon, center, celebrates in 2013 after being chosen at president pro tempore by a mostly Republican vote. Tom James/Crosscut

This is only one scenario. But Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, might become the most powerful member of the Washington State Senate.

That's because Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and controversial leader of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus of 24 Republicans and two Democrats, announced Monday, that he won't run for re-election, citing family and health matters.

"I'm still working through some health issues related to my kidney stones adventure that I had at the end of the session," Tom said in an email to the rest of the Majority Coalition Caucus. "The final straw was on this past Thursday, my 85-year-old father was hit by a car ...  It broke his femur as well as damaging his hip. He's going to require a lot of physical therapy over the next several months, and I'm his only son that lives in the area."

He continued, "I have always said that health and family are my number one values, and instead of that being merely a campaign slogan, I really do try to live by them." 

Tom's announcement surprised Republicans, who dominate the coalition. State GOP chairwoman Susan Hutchison said she found out about Tom's decision Monday morning. Republicans have not lined up a replacement Republican candidate for the 48th District, which is Medina and parts of Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland. However, Hutchison said an internal GOP poll had showed that Tom, who calls himself a Democrat despite his collaboration with Senate Republicans, would "easily win" a 48th District race. She declined to elaborate on the poll other than saying its design is scientifically valid.

Former Kirkland mayor Joan McBride had announced she would run as a Democrat against Tom. However, Monday's announcement sets up questions on whether McBride, Rep. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, or Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, would run for the Senate seat with the other two running for the House. Habib and, especially, Hunter are proven vote-getters district wide.

"I was blindsided ... along with everyone else," Habib said. Habib speculated that Democratic leaders will likely huddle to figure out which of the three candidates should run for which of the three seats — mulling over campaign cost estimates and who would be the best candidate going against a yet-to-be-determined Republican opponent. "The goal for all of us is to sit down and figure out how to regain the state Senate," Habib said. Hunter and McBride could not be reached for comment Monday. The filing deadline is May 16.

Tom and Sheldon became controversial in December 2012 when they switched from the Senate Democratic caucus, which then held a 26-23 majority in the upper chamber, to the Republican caucus to give it a 25-24 edge. The Republican caucus dubbed itself the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus since Tom and Sheldon said they would remain Democrats even though they caucus and vote with the Republicans. In return, the Republicans made Tom the leader of the coalition and the Senate Majority Leader.

That coalition has controlled the Senate in 2013 and 2014, and has stopped almost every major push made by the Democrat-controlled House and Gov. Jay Inslee. While the coalition has rarely been able to get its bills through the House, its members have appeared much more comfortable with a deadlocked Legislature than the Democrats and Inslee.

The majority coalition increased its advantage to 26-23 after a Democrat incumbent lost a special election last November in southern Kitsap County. That has Democrats and Republicans jockeying to control the Senate in November's elections with eight obvious swing districts in play in the Puget Sound suburbs. In those seven, one Democratic incumbent, Tracey Eide of Federal Way, and one majority coalition incumbent, Tom, are not running — creating two open seats.

The other five  swing district Senate seats are held by four Republicans — Sens. Jan Angel of Port Orchard, Steve O'Ban of Pierce County, Andy Hill of Redmond and Joe Fain of Auburn — plus Democrat Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens.

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Posted Tue, Apr 15, 7:08 a.m. Inappropriate

"The other six swing district Senate seats are held by five Republicans — Sens. Jan Angel of Port Orchard, Steve O'Ban of Pierce County, Andy Hill of Redmond, Steve Litzow of Mercer Island and Joe Fain of Auburn — plus Democrat Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens."

Sen. Steve Litzow of Mercer Island is NOT up for re-election this year, but Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R) of Spokane IS up for re-election in a seat Democrats probably have a shot at.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Sheldon is in a tough re-election situation, with a Democrat to his left and a tea-bagger to his right. Yes, Sheldon can usually be said to have a "solid hold" on his seat, but his involvement in political high drama and credible options for his constituents mean this won't be a typical re-election bid for him.

Finally, Sen. Steve Hobbs (D) is probably just a bit safer than you're giving him credit for: he's a moderate whose politics suit his Lake Stevens district with a no-name challenger who has raised $200 to Hobbs' $130,000

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 8:35 a.m. Inappropriate



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