Michelle Darnelle tossed her hat into the ring late Friday afternoon to replace Rodney Tom. That turned the future of a key Eastside district into a contest that will help determine which political party controls the state Senate.
Tom is one of two Democrats who joined Republicans in late 2012 to create the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, shifting the balance of power to Republicans in the Senate and Olympia. Tom dropped out of the 2014 race due to family and health reasons, catching his Republican allies off-guard without a replacement. Entering Friday afternoon, only one-term Rep. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, had filed for Tom's seat, which covers Medina and parts of Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland.
Then Darnelle, a foreclosure defense paralegal from Kirkland, filed late Friday. "I'm actually a June Cleaver who got kind of fed up," said the mother of four. She had been thinking about running for a long time, but expected to try her hand in 2016. Her friends and 48th District Republicans talked her into trying this year, and she filed late Friday because of how her schedule worked out. Her previous political experience is as a delegate to the state Republican convention.
Besides the 48th District, the 47th District — the Auburn and Kent area — was the other swing district that appeared to have only one candidate entering Friday. Carol Barber, a marriage and family therapist from Kent, filed Thursday to run against 47th District Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn. But she did not show up on the Washington Secretary of State's Web site until Friday afternoon. Her political experience consists of being vice chair of the 47th District Democrats.
Currently, the Senate is split 26-23. Up to 10 Washington Senate districts could be considered swing districts in the upcoming elections. Majority coalition members hold eight and minority Democrats holds two. That means the minority Democrats need to win four out of the 10 races to gain control of the Senate.
The districts generally considered to be capable of going for either party are six in the greater Puget Sound area: the 26th, 28th, 30th, 45th, 47th and 48th. Some believe the 6th in Spokane and Western Washington's 35th, 42nd and 44th districts have potential for upsets. Gerrymandering has made the other districts safe for the Democratic and Republican incumbents.
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.
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.
A couple of wrinkles have shown up in this past week's filings.
Several Democratic candidates with Hispanic surnames have filed in GOP-dominated Eastern Washington. For the past 20 years, speculation has come and gone on if and when the region's growing Latino population might emerge as a noticeable voting bloc. That possibility might be tested this year.
Also on Friday, socialist Jessica Spear filed against 20-year veteran Democrat House Speaker Frank Chopp in Seattle's ultra-liberal 43rd District. Two years ago, Socialist Kshama Sawant challenged Chopp and lost badly, getting 30 percent of the vote. But she used that campaign as a springboard for a successful 2013 run at Seattle's City Council, giving the socialists a high profile in the city's politics.
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