King County Council member Larry Phillips is starting to get organized to challenge fellow Democrat Ron Sims for County Executive in 2009, according to this account in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Ordinarily a Democrat wouldn't have much chance of toppling a still-popular Democratic incumbent, but our new election laws are changing the odds.
In the new "top-two primary," the top two vote-getters move on to the general election, even if they are from the same party. This dramatically changes the dynamics, as Phillips clearly perceives. In the old system, the challenger would have to pry away interest groups naturally aligned with (and fearful of) the incumbent — pretty much dashing his or her chances. Under the new system, a centrist challenger can survive to the general election and sweep up votes from the other party. Indeed, with the Republicans so bereft of talent and confidence in King County, Phillips might even get a lot of them in the primary.
Phillips is not a natural in running to the right of Sims, who has strong ties with developers and has been working the Republican suburbs for years. Meanwhile Phillips, who represents Council District 4 from Queen Anne, remains a creature of north Seattle liberal politics. (Another problem may be his very visible advocacy of failed Proposition 1.)
But Phillips has three advantages to offset that problem. Sims is tired and cranky, still trying to regain working relations with other politicians after his heresy on the roads-and-transit Proposition 1. His eye is on a federal appointment under a President Obama, which makes him seem a slightly lame duck. And the county is tipping into another of its periodic times of near-bankruptcy and deep budget-cutting, for which Sims will take the blame.
Even so, some observers think the famously-cautious Phillips will waver, and that other Democrats, sensing Sims's vulnerability and tired of waiting forever for a chance to move up, will also get in. A more centrist figure like Mark Sidran, who almost won the Seattle mayor's race in 2001, could have more strength outside of Seattle, though Sidran says he's sworn off any more runs for office.