Washington's Democrats will play offense for the next six months. The state's Republicans will play defense.
The battle will be for control of the 49-member state Senate — the one spot in Olympia where Republicans have been able to stop the Democrats' legislative agendas.
The Democrats have a 55-43 advantage in the House, meaning the GOP would have to win almost every swing district to obtain a 49-49 split or to control the lower chamber. This is theoretically possible, but the GOP would need a huge amount of luck, even given gains in recent House elections.
The real battleground is the Senate. Right now, the Majority Coalition Caucus — made up of 24 Republicans and two Democrats — controls that chamber. As a practical matter, almost everyone in Olympia considers the two Democrats — Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch —- as de facto Republicans, even though coalition members maintain they are technically Democrats.
The bottom is line is that the minority Democrats need to gain two seats to retake control of the Senate, which they lost in late 2012 when Tom and Sheldon switched sides.
The stakes in the fight for Senate control are big, starting with whether Gov. Jay Inslee will get any of his climate change agenda through the Legislature. That was his signature issue in his campaign for governor as well as when he was in Congress. But the battle will also determine whether social services will take a major hit so the state government can comply with a Washington Supreme Court order to increase education spending; whether tax breaks will be closed to raise more money for education; and whether taxes will increase overall. And the outcome could influence whether the Senate remains in a long-running deadlock with Inslee and the Democratic House over a $10 billion-plus transportation projects.
"We don't see it as a deadlock. We see it as preventing bad things from happening," said Washington Republican Party chairwoman Susan Hutchison. Taxes and college tuitions did not increase during the coalition's control of the Senate. "We see everything swinging Republican. Everyone sees the effects of government overreach," she said.
On the other side, state Democratic chairman Jaxon Ravens said the public is frustrated by the deadlock in the transportation package, which covers needed repairs and improvements in highways and ferries, as well as creating construction jobs. Also, the parallel deadlock on implementing the Supreme Courts education requirements could reflect poorly on the majority coalition, he said. "What (the majority coalition) did in reality is not lead. I think in reality, they pissed a lot of people off," Ravens said.
Both Hutchison and Ravens argue that their party will gain Senate seats in November.
Washington's legislative districts have been gerrymandered to ensure a majority of those areas are safe Republican and Democratic regions. Five to 10 of the 49 districts can be considered swing districts, depending on how strictly or loosely you define a swing district.
The reason that Republicans should be considered on defense is that eight swing seats were held by six Republicans and two majority coalition Democrats at the beginning of this year. Only two minority Democrat Senate seats can be realistically considered in play. The Democrats would need to hang on to their two seats and pick up another two to take control — winning four of the 10 elections. The 10 seats up for grabs would be the 6th Legislative in Eastern Washington and nine in the Puget Sound suburbs.
If you are go with the five seats-actually-in-play scenario, four majority coalition slots and one minority Democrat seat could be considered tight races. Democrats would have to win three of the five to take over the Senate. The five seats in play with this scenario would be the 26th, 28th, 30th, 45th and 48th, all in the Puget Sound area.
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