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Primary tallies spell trouble for Democrats

Tim Sheldon, veteran of many campaigns, survived a close primary. Credit: John Stang

The counting is over, and the ballots tallied since primary election day have brought more bad news for Washington State Democrats.

Pedro Celis, the Republican favorite in the 1st Congressional District, survived the top two primary, keeping this seat in play.

Tim Sheldon, the Democrat who votes with the Republicans in the State Senate, also survived the primary, which probably takes this seat out of play for the Ds.

In the State House, a number of Republican incumbents who once appeared endangered now appear safe; a number of Democratic incumbents who looked safe now find themselves in competitive races.

And, most importantly, none of the key races for the State Senate improved for the Democrats. In fact, late counting put another Democratic seat, the 44th district, in danger. Democrats will have to defy history if they are to take back the Senate.

So what happened? 

All year I have observed that there was no significant tide running for either party so far. That’s still true, but in hindsight I failed to anticipate the effect of this year's (predictably) extra-low turnout in Washington State. This is the first state/federal election since 2002 that does not include a race for Governor or U.S. Senator. The lack of a marquee, top-of-ticket race generates less interest and lower turnout. Only 31 percent of the state's voters returned their ballots in the primary — far, far below the norm for a primary election.

In this era, low turnout favors Republicans. Democrats need votes from young people, the less affluent and non-white voters. A low turnout usually favors the GOP, and that is exactly what we saw in the primary. Republican candidates who barely campaigned racked up impressive results due entirely to turnout.

Can the Democrats rally as turnout rises in the general election? Yes. But history shows that there is a limit to how far a candidate can come back after a disappointing primary result.

Two years ago, Democrat Monica Stonier received 45.4 percent of the vote running against two Republicans in Clark County’s 17th legislative district. Stonier bounced back and won by 139 votes. That is the biggest comeback win in Washington State’s recent history; and it was accomplished with the help of a super-high presidential election turnout and Barack Obama heading the Democratic ticket. Turnout will be higher in November, but it will still be lower than in any such general election since 2002.

I expect that history will continue to be a reliable guide. It is highly unlikely that any candidate who received less than 45 percent of the primary vote (alone, or in aggregate with other members of his or her party) is going to be elected.

Given that, here is where the key races stand now:

1st and 4th Congressional Districts

Pedro Celis, the anointed Republican challenger to freshman Democrat, Suzan DelBene, nearly suffered a humiliating defeat in the primary. Now, the conventional wisdom is that the primary revealed Celis as a weak challenger. But DelBene (below), the only D on the ballot, received just under 51 percent, which means she is vulnerable. Can Celis find a message that will connect with voters and make a case to replace an incumbent? And if so, can he raise enough money to deliver it? For now, this race continues to lean Democratic.

As expected, former State Rep. Dan Newhouse and Tea Partier Clint Didier have advanced to an all-GOP final in the battle to replace Doc Hastings in central Washington’s 4th CD.  Nothing has changed since election night. Newhouse is the heavy favorite to win this seat, as Didier is unlikely to win the votes of Democrats or moderates.

Our state’s other eight members of Congress are on the road to easy re-elections.

State Senate Outlook

To gain two seats and retake control of the Senate floor Democrats will have to come back from a roughly 10-point deficit in two races, and/or defeat Sen. Tim Sheldon in an all-Democrat final in the 35th district. Possible? Yes. Likely? No. Today, it appears the Majority Coalition will maintain its 26-23 advantage.

Likely Republican

28th LD (Lakewood, University Place):  Sen. Steve O’Ban (R) vs. Rep. Tami Green (D)

45th LD (Redmond/Woodinville): Sen. Andy Hill (R) vs. Matt Isenhower (D) 

42nd LD (Whatcom county):  en. Doug Ericksen (R) vs. Seth Fleetwood (D)

30th LD (Federal Way): Former Rep. Mark Miloscia (R) vs. Shari Song (D

6th LD (Suburban Spokane): Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R) vs. Rich Cowan (D)

26th LD (Gig Harbor): GOP Sen. Jan Angel vs. Former teacher, Judy Arbogast. 

We have watched these races all year, and all the Republicans save Hill received 56 percent or 57 percent of the primary vote. At 54 percent, Hill’s race is the only one that seems somewhat competitive. The Ds have lots of money. They won’t give up. But winning two of these races seems like a very long shot.

Leaning Democratic

44th LD (Bothell area):  Sen. Steve Hobbs (D) vs. Jim Kellett (R)
Hobbs’ vote total dropped from an initial 55 percent to 52 percent in post-election day counting. The 44th district leans Republican. Will the Rs make a serious run at this district now? Forcing the Democrats to spend money here further diminishes their chances to take out two Republicans.

The Outlier

This next race is an unusual one:

35th LD (Mason County): Majority Coalition Democrat, Tim Sheldon vs. Democrat Irene Bowling
Conventional wisdom holds that after surviving the top two primary, Sheldon is now safe. But with other races slipping away might the Democrats choose to spend some money here against Sheldon? For now, let’s keep watching.

State House Outlook

Republicans have a chance to gain at least two seats and lower the margin in the state House of Representatives to less than 10 seats. If they succeed, then the pressure builds on Speaker Frank Chopp to control his caucus and the House floor. Some people will even begin talking about the possibility of assembling the type of anti-Seattle coalition in the House that is in control of the Senate. Of the 98 House seats up for election, we are down to roughly 10 competitive races, as many other races, particularly those featuring Republican incumbents, no longer appear close.

Toss Ups

17th LD (Vancouver area): Rep. Monica Stonier (D) vs. Lynda Wilson (R). Wilson leads with 52 percent.

35th LD (Shelton): Democratic Rep. Kathy Haigh is receiving just under 50 percent of the vote. She will now face Republican Dan Griffey.

Lean Republican

26th LD (Gig Harbor): Republican Rep. Jesse Young vs. former Democratic Sen. Nathan Schlicher. Young and another R received 53 percent.

44th LD (Mill Creek): GOP Mill Creek City Councilmember Mark Harmsworth received 52 percent, and leads Democratic teacher Mike Wilson in this battle for an open Republican seat.

Likely Republican

28th LD Pos. 2 (Lakewood): Two Republicans racked up 53 percent of the vote, while two Ds received 44 percent. Republican Paul Waggeman is now the favorite over Democrat Christine Kilduff in this race for an open Democratic seat.

Leaning Democratic

26th LD (Gig Harbor): Republican dentist Michelle Caldier vs. veteran Democrat Rep. Larry Seaquist. Seaquist was held to 51 percent.

25th LD (Puyallup, Sumner): Democratic incumbent Dawn Morrell is only getting 51 percent of the vote against Republican Melanie Stambaugh.

30th LD Pos. 2 (Federal Way): Republican Federal Way City Councilmember Jack Dovey received 49 percent against freshmen Democrat Roger Freeman. Republicans have been high on Caldier all year. Will they now also target Stambaugh and Dovey?

Likely Democratic

45th LD Pos. 1 (Redmond): Republican Joel Hussey vs. Democrat Rep. Roger Goodman.
Republicans spent roughly $50,000 in the primary attacking Goodman on personal issues relating to his divorce, but he still won 54 percent of the vote. Will the GOP keep targeting this race when they appear to have better opportunities in others?

47th LD Pos. 2 (Kent, Auburn): Democratic Majority Leader Pat Sullivan only got 52 percent of the vote against a Republican, Barry Knowles, who spent less than $5,000 in the primary. Again, will the Rs really target this race? Probably not, but it stays on the list for now.

44th LD Pos. 1 (Mill Creek): Democratic Rep. Hans Dunshee vs. Republican Rob Toyer. Republicans had all but given up on beating Dunshee, but will his 53 percent showing in the primary get their attention now?

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