Legislative elections this year could bring surprises

Rep. Cyrus Habib Credit: John Stang

This fall’s elections have big implications for the future of Washington. There is no way we can fulfill our most important responsibilities and meet our biggest challenges— like funding and improving our public schools, building an economy that offers opportunities to everyone, and tackling our transportation problems — without leadership from the Legislature.  

The biggest question for Washington voters about the Legislature is who will control our state Senate, now run by Republicans. There is some conventional wisdom, voiced by Chris Vance in Crosscut "(GOP gains ground in battle for state Senate control"), that Republicans will maintain their control, based on the lineup of who’s up for re-election and where seats are in play, and the fact that Democrats often struggle in low turnout, off year elections. I believe that conventional wisdom is wrong.

The Republican’s biggest Achilles’ heel is their track record. After two years of the Republican majority, it has become clear that the Senate under their leadership in not a place that is capable of doing the work of government — of working together to solve problems that we cannot solve alone.

Dominated by the extreme wing of the Republican caucus, the Senate has become a Northwest version of the U.S. House of Representatives. Their main accomplishment is to block progress on solving our most important problems. They spend their time holding hearings dedicated to denying the science of climate change, trying to overrule local laws that provide sick leave to working families, and attacking the Supreme Court for ruling we aren’t meeting our constitutional responsibilities to fund public education.

Nationally, Republicans have gerrymandered so many districts that they can maintain a majority in the U.S. House despite record disapproval ratings and losing the popular vote. That is not true in Washington state, however, where Republican senators must face accountability for surrendering to an extremist agenda in moderate swing districts.

This year, the Republican senators who rode the Tea Party wave to victory are up for re-election. This political landscape, combined with an improving local economy and the success of Obamacare in Washington state, means Democrats here are on the offense in 2014 legislative races.

The strongest pickup opportunity comes in the 48th District, a progressive district that includes Bellevue and Kirkland. Embattled and vulnerable Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom’s decision not to run gives Democrats a substantial advantage in this race. They have a popular and formidable candidate in Rep. Cyrus Habib. Republicans will be hard pressed to hang onto that seat, especially given the Senate Republicans’ track record of blocking progress on issues that are popular in this district — from the Reproductive Parity Act to transit funding and a working transportation package.  

The next Democratic pickup opportunity comes in the 28th Legislative District, a blue collar swing district with a large military population south of Tacoma. In many ways this race is a mirror image of the special election in the 26th District last year: A popular and well-known House member is challenging a newly appointed senator in a challenging district for the incumbent. Despite a record-setting 2013 campaign in the 26th District that made up an early 20 percentage point deficit, Sen. Nathan Schlicher couldn’t overcome the name recognition of Rep. Jan Angel and lost by a slim margin.

However, in the 28th this year the tables are turned as popular longtime Democratic Rep. Tami Green has stepped up to challenge Sen. Steve O'Ban. The incumbent O’Ban is a hardline social conservative who was appointed to this seat just last year. Green is a registered nurse and union member from a military family who has been an effective progressive member of House leadership. Green’s proven commitment to the community, name recognition, fundraising network and background as a health care leader make her a very strong challenger for Democrats in 2014.

In the 45th District, which covers Redmond and Woodinville, incumbent Sen. Andy Hill eked out a narrow victory in the Republican wave of 2010. Now Hill faces a strong challenge from Democrat Matt Isenhower. Like Green and Habib, Isenhower has a great resume. He is a Navy veteran, Harvard MBA, businessman, and father of young kids. He’s already aggressively campaigning and raising money in this swing district and has a good chance of unseating Hill after the Republican budget chair failed to address the funding problems that undermine our education system. 

While these three districts are all pickup opportunities for Democrats, Republicans were giddy at their own pickup opportunity after socially conservative Democrat Mark Miloscia switched sides to run for the open seat in the 30th district. However, this race changed again recently when Democrat Shari Song moved back to her home district and declared her candidacy. Song, a businesswoman with a strong track record of community leadership, ran a strong campaign and raised her profile in her 2013 race against Reagan Dunn for King County Council. Progressives will devote significant resources to defend this seat and elect a woman of color.

And Democrats could generate some surprises elsewhere. After losing even in his own district when he challenged U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell in 2012, Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, spent much of legislative session waging his own retaliation battles against the Insurance Commissioner, the state Supreme Court, and anyone else he disagreed with. Democrat Rich Cowan, the well-known head of a movie production company, is working very hard and has a chance of unseating Baumgartner.

These challengers, as well as first-time Senate candidates like Pramila Jayapal and Marko Liias in safer districts, comprise a strong and diverse class of Democrats. Together, they are poised to retake and remake our state Senate and help build stronger communities and more prosperous state for all of us. And this year voters across Washington realize what’s at stake: not just control of the Senate, but in a very real sense the future of our state.  

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