Call it the "Grandma Williams scenario."
Challengers hoping to knock veteran Sen. Tim Sheldon out of his 35th District seat point — directly or indirectly — to his 2010 race against obscure Belfair Republican candidate Nancy Williams. She won 38 percent of the votes in that November election despite running an almost non-existent campaign on $6,245. Sheldon spent $113,990. The ballot identified her as "Nancy 'Grandma' Williams," and her stances on the issues pigeonholed her as an early Tea Party candidate.
That 38 percent smells like opportunity for Sheldon's 2014 challengers. The incumbent, they reason, is too liberal for nearly more than a third of the 35th's voters. If a dark horse grandmother can nab the conservative crowd, so can they. If that 38 percent is still in play then Sheldon is vulnerable in the August 5 primary.
The Grandma Williams scenario goes like this: The district's restless 38 percent would choose libertarian challenger Travis Couture of Belfair, the most conservative of Sheldon's primary challengers. If Democrat Irene Bowling of Bremerton could then pick off enough of the district's more liberal voters, the ones to Sheldon's left, it could leave the veteran State Senator in third place in the primary — and out of the running.
Sheldon's fate could change the complexion of politics statewide, as well as in the district on the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas, where he has been a fixture for decades. The state Senate, held by a Republican-dominated coalition with a precarious three-vote majority, is up for grabs this year. Sheldon, a Democrat, crossed party lines last year to help create the coalition and wrest control of the Senate from his fellow Democrats. The result has been virtual gridlock on transportation proposals and climate change, and a standoff that has favored Republicans on taxes and the new education spending necessary to comply with the state Supreme Court's mandates for better state support of public schools.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and the majority House Democrats see an opportunity to move forward in all those areas if they can just regain control of the Senate. Republicans seek to maintain their strong bargaining position by holding the Senate. And they hope that continuing to stall Inslee's efforts on climate, energy and education will damage his chances for re-election in 2016.
If the Democrats could replace Sheldon, they would be a half way to the two seats they need to regain control of the Senate. The high-stakes nature of the 35th district race has led to a lot of talk about the Grandma Williams scenario, in which conservatives go heavily with a Republican in the primary.
If, as in the 2010 general election, 38 percent of 35th District voters were to opt for the most conservative of the three primary candidates, libertarian-leaning Republican Travis Couture of Belfair, then Democrat Irene Bowling of Bremerton might well pick up enough votes to the left of Sheldon to put him in third place, and out of the running for the fall's top-two election.
That would amount to the felling of a giant political tree. Sheldon, 67, who lives on a bit of family-owned logging land next to the Hood Canal community of Potlatch, has been elected three times as the 35th District's state representative, four times as its state senator and twice as Mason County commissioner. That's nine unbeaten races across 22 years. He is simultaneously county commissioner and state senator.
Sheldon and Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, left the Senate's Democratic caucus in December 2012 to create the 23- Republican-two Democrat Majority Coalition Caucus that took control of the Senate and dominated Olympia politics ever since. The majority coalition picked up an extra Republican in a 2013 special election. But personal reasons led Tom to decide against seeking re-election this year. That leaves Sheldon as the only Democrat in the majority coalition.
Sheldon has been a Democrat since he tagged along when his brother attended the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964. He doesn't want to change parties. But he does intend to stay with the de facto Republican caucus. He believes the majority coalition has been more tolerant of dissent within its ranks than the Democrats, and he is more comfortable with the current Republican political positions.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!