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Sizing up Olympia: Democrats have a chance

Drop-off voting Credit: Allyce Andrew

Candidate filing has come and gone. Now we know far more about who is truly running, and which seats are really in play. At the national level, things are beginning to look bleak for the Democrats, but is that true here at home?

Nationally, Democrats must defend seven U.S. Senate seats this year in states won by Mitt Romney. That’s a tall order, and the fact that Republicans appear poised to gain Senate seats is creating a national narrative that the Ds are in trouble.  But what happens in Arkansas, Montana, Louisiana and other red states actually has nothing to do with election outcomes here.

Yes, President Obama’s approval rating is abysmal. Yes, Obamacare is unpopular. But Republicans have done nothing to improve their own approval rating with the American people, which stands at 34%, far below even Obama’s miserable 44% approval.

The last two national polls have actually shown a very slight Democratic advantage in the generic ballot poll. This is the normal state of affairs when it comes to generic ballot polling in non-landslide elections. Remember, Republicans had a 9% advantage just before their landslide wins in 2010, while Democrats had an 11% lead just before their big wins in 2006. The atmosphere could certainly change, but right now this still looks like a year without a tide for either party. 

Here are the biggest political races in Washington state this year.

U.S. House of Representatives

1st Congressional District

Four Republicans have filed against freshmen Democrat Rep. Suzan DelBene, but Pedro Celis, a retired Microsoft engineer who has long been a leader in the Republican Party and the Hispanic community, is the candidate considered to be a serious contender. Celis raised just over $200,000 in the first quarter of 2014, and national Republican groups are fully engaged in helping him. The 1st CD, which runs from Redmond to Canada, was drawn to be a competitive district.This is a race to watch, but for now it leans to the Democrats.

4th Congressional District

Eight Republicans have filed to replace veteran Congressman Doc Hastings in central Washington’s 4th district. Will the final be between two Rs? Will the new Republican House member ultimately be Tea Partier Clint Didier, or a more mainstream choice, such as State Senator, Janea Holmquist Newbry, or former State Rep. Dan Newhouse?

Other congressional districts

Candidate filing did nothing to alter the conclusion that our state’s other eight members of Congress appear to be cruising to re-election.

State Senate Outlook

The battle for the state Senate is really the main event this year, with Democrats and their allies determined to gain the two seats they need to retake nominal control of the Senate. Both sides have gotten some breaks with incumbents dropping out and strong challengers emerging.

One very important thing to remember about legislative races is the ability both parties have to move money into a race if they choose to do so. Both parties can use their caucus political committees, or independent expenditures by allies, to suddenly and dramatically affect a race. What this means is, a challenger may be getting a late start and may not have raised much money today, but that the race could still get hot later this year if the party decides to pour money in.

Here is the outlook on competitive Senate races now that we know who is actually running:

Toss-ups:

28th Legislative District (Lakewood, University Place): As expected, Sen. Steve O’Ban (R) will battle Rep. Tami Green (D):  The district is evenly divided between Rs and Ds. Both these candidates won their respective races with 55% of the vote two years ago. Flip a coin; this is going to be close.

Lean Republican:

45th LD (Redmond/Woodinville):  Sen. Andy Hill (R) vs. Matt Isenhower (D): I have moved this race from “Toss Up” to “Lean R” based on the fact that Hill has raised nearly four times what Isenhower has raised, and what I am hearing about how hard Hill is working within the district. Still, Hill barely unseated a Democratic incumbent four years ago in a very good Republican year, and the 45th is a tough district for the GOP. This race will likely be close.

42nd LD (Whatcom County): Sen. Doug Ericksen (R) vs. Seth Fleetwood (D): The Democrats scored a recruiting victory by signing up Fleetwood, a former member of the both the Whatcom County Council and the Bellingham City Council. Fleetwood is getting a late start, but Democratic allies can quickly move money into this race. The 42nd leans Republican. Ericksen is a tough campaigner. But this race is now definitely in play.

30th LD (Federal Way): Veteran Democratic Sen. Tracey Eide retired, and former Democratic State Rep. Mark Miloscia is running as a Republican. Democrats are supporting Shari Song, who just moved back to Federal Way from Bellevue after running for the King County Council last year in a district on the other side of I-5 from her new district. What makes this race competitive is the fact that Federal Way leans more and more to the Democrats every election. At this point though, Miloscia appears strong enough win, even as a Republican.

Likely Republican:

6th LD (Suburban Spokane): Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R) vs. Rich Cowan (D). The 6th just appears too Republican for a Democrat to win without a big national Democratic tide.

Likely Democratic:

44th LD (Bothell area):  Sen. Steve Hobbs (D) vs. Jim Kellett (R) Republicans believe investment manager Jim Kellett can oust two term incumbent, Steve Hobbs. Maybe. The 44th leans slightly Republican. But Hobbs won a tough race here in 2010, during a big Republican tide, so he remains the favorite at this point.

Other Senate Races to watch (at least for now):

In the South Sound's 31st Legislative District, Sen. Pam Roach faces a challenge from a fellow Republican, Rep. Cathy Dahlquist. There is also a Democratic challenger, but ultimately the seat is likely to remain Republican with either Roach or Dahlquist emerging as the final winner in November.

Maverick Democrat Tim Sheldon, the senator from the 35th District (Mason County and parts of Thurston and Kitsap counties), has both a Republican and a Democratic opponent. Can he finish first or second in August, then prevail in November? Given his history of dominating this district, probably yes.

In the 26th LD, GOP Sen. Jan Angel of Port Orchard has drawn a credible Democratic opponent in former teacher Judy Arbogast. The 26th, however, leans pretty heavily Republican, and Angel has been elected here multiple times.

And finally in two other fights in King County, Sen. Joe Fain appears to face only token opposition in the highly competitive 47th District, while Rep. Cyrus Habib will almost certainly win the 48th district for the Democrats now that Rodney Tom has stepped aside.

Bottom line: To win the Senate it appears the Ds will need to win at least two of the four highly competitive races:  the 28th, the 45th, the 30th and 42nd. Difficult, but not impossible.

State House Outlook

One thing appears certain: Democrats will again control the state House of Representatives next year. Nineteen Democratic candidates are running without Republican opposition, another 27 seats appear absolutely safe for the Ds, and five more seats fall in the “likely Democratic” column, giving the Ds 51 safe or virtually safe seats. That’s a majority in the 98-seat House. But can the GOP gain seats, as they have the past three elections?

By the way, 22 Republicans are running without Democratic opposition. So, Democrats rarely file candidates in eastern Washington; while Republicans fail to contest most Seattle seats, and we’re all OK that?

Here is the current outlook on competitive House races:

Toss-ups:

17th LD (Vancouver area): Rep. Monica Stonier (D) vs. Lynda Wilson (R). Stonier won an open seat race by 139 votes in 2012. Wilson is a small business person and the recently resigned Clark County Republican chair. 

28th LD (Lakewood): This is an open seat, vacated by Tami Green to run for the state Senate. Two Democrats and two Republicans, all of whom appear to be mounting serious campaigns, have filed for this open seat. The 28th is a true swing district.

47th LD (Kent/Auburn/Covington): Republican Rep. Mark Hargrove barely survived 2012, winning by only 157 votes. Now he faces Democrat Chris Barringer, chief of staff to the King County Sherriff. Barringer has already passed Hargrove in terms of fundraising. Republicans have got to be worried about this seat.

Lean Republican:

26th LD (Gig Harbor):  Republican Jesse Young was appointed to the open seat vacated by Jan Angel, who was elected to the Senate last year. Democrats have recruited Nathan Schlicher, who spent one session in the Senate before losing to Angel. The Republican leanings of the 26th give the GOP a slight advantage at this point.

30th LD (Federal Way): Federal Way leans to the Ds. GOP Rep. Linda Kochmar won her seat two years ago by only 655 votes. Now she faces Democratic firefighter Greg Baruso. Kochmar is a former city councilmember who has won multiple races in Federal Way, but can she survive without a big Republican tide?

31st LD (Enumclaw, Lake Tapps): Cathy Dahlquist vacated her House seat to take on fellow Republican Sen. Pam Roach.  Republican King County Council staff person Drew Stokesbary will take on Democratic Enumclaw City Councilmember Mike Sando. The 31st leans pretty heavily to the GOP.

44th LD (Bothell/Mountlake Terrace): GOP Rep. Mike Hope is retiring, creating an open seat in a swing district that leans slightly to the GOP. Republicans think they have a winner in Mill Creek City Councilman Mark Harmsworth, who ran for the 44th's other House seat two years ago. The Democrats are running teacher Mike Wilson.

Lean Democratic:

26th LD (Gig Harbor): Republicans are excited about their challenger to veteran Democrat Rep. Larry Seaquist. Michelle Caldier is a dentist who has already raised nearly $60,000, far more than Seaquist. The 26th is a district that leans to the GOP. Seaquist is popular, but he has never faced a challenge like this.

35th LD (Shelton): Democratic Rep. Kathy Haigh won with only 51% of the vote in 2012 against Republican Dan Griffey. Griffey and another Republican, Josiah Rowell, are running vigorous campaigns. Can Haigh hold on in a district that leans to the GOP?

There are a number of contested House seats that, given past election results, could become competitive if one party or the other decides to move big money in.  We should keep our eyes on these races for at least a little while longer. These Republican incumbents could face genuine challenges: Chad Magendanz and Jay Rodne (5th LD, Issaquah), David Hayes (10th LD, Skagit), Paul Harris (17th LD, Clark County) Hans Zeiger (25th LD, Puyallup) Dick Muri (28th LD) Drew MacEwen (35th LD, Shelton), Liz Scott (39th LD, Skagit), and both seats in the 42nd (Whatcom). The Democrats who might end up facing real runs for their seats are: Dawn Morrell (25th LD, Puyallup, Sumner), Roger Freeman (30th LD, Federal Way), Chris Hurst (31st LD, Bonney Lake), Hans Dunshee (44th LD, Mill Creek), Roger Goodman (45th LD, Redmond).

Bottom line: Democrats today hold a 55-43 advantage in the House. Of the nine clearly competitive races, five are currently held by Republicans, four by Democrats.  It doesn’t appear likely that either party will make more than a one- or two-seat net gain at this point.

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