Inside Politics 2012: Power grab in Olympia will be stretch for GOP

In some ways, the numbers would favor Republicans in legislative races, but President Barack Obama's strength in this state and some strong Democratic candidates weigh against a changing of the legislative guard.
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Washington State Capitol

In some ways, the numbers would favor Republicans in legislative races, but President Barack Obama's strength in this state and some strong Democratic candidates weigh against a changing of the legislative guard.

With the filing period for candidates in Washington state over, we can really begin analyzing where the hot races are and how majorities may shift in the state House and Senate. The bottom line is, it appears likely Republicans will make gains in Olympia, but to actually take the majority in either house they will have to virtually run the table when it comes to competitive races.

Before looking at specifics, there are two points that must be made regarding legislative races.

First, legislative contests are heavily impacted by the big picture, national trends, and races at the top of the ticket. Even the most popular, well known legislator will be thrown out of office in a swing district if the national tide is running against his or her party. In addition, legislative candidates benefit greatly from get out the vote and other organizational activities generated by strong congressional and statewide campaigns.

In this regard, the playing field tilts slightly in favor of the Democrats. The presidential contest is competitive nationally, but it is highly unlikely the Romney campaign will spend much time or money in Washington state. President Barack Obama is likely to carry Washington, meaning Republicans in most of the battleground legislative districts will have to run several percentage points ahead of the top of the ticket. 

Organizationally, the McKenna campaign and the Republican Governor’s Association will be very helpful to Republican legislative candidates. But as recently as 2004, Washington state was targeted by both the Bush re-election campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (in support of Rep. George Nethercutt’s campaign against Sen. Patty Murray). That level of money and staff support will not be there for the GOP this year.

One bit of good news for Republicans is the fact that in the open seat race in the 6th congressional district (Tacoma, Kitsap, Olympic Peninsula) a serious Republican has emerged. Bill Driscoll has never run for office, but he is a retired Marine Corp officer and a member of the Weyerhaeuser family. He began the campaign by putting $500,000 of his own money into the race.  The 6th is still a likely Democratic district, but Driscoll appears to be far more viable than the Republican Party activists who had announced earlier, and this will aid GOP candidates in a few key competitive races for the Legislature.

Second, unlike almost any other level of campaigning, party insiders can move large amounts of money into a legislative race overnight, and local fundraising by individual candidates is much less important than it is in other races. PACs and party committees are important in races Congress, for example, but candidates are expected to raise roughly two-thirds of the money at home, from individual donors.

In highly competitive legislative races, on the other hand, the state parties, the caucus political committees, and Olympia PACs can, and often do, provide the bulk of the money. This means a candidate can raise very little money himself or herself, but if the party leadership decide to target a race they can move the money necessary to make it competitive.

Finally, polling is virtually non-existent in legislative races. Our next chance to handicap the legislature will come once we see the results of the August top two primary.

State Senate

In the state Senate, Democrats have unexpectedly been able to put enough Republican seats in play to greatly diminish the GOP’s chances to pick up the three seats they need for a 25-24 majority.

Democrats appear to be conceding their open seat in the 25th district (Puyallup and Sumner) to Republican Rep. Bruce Dammeier.  Republicans need a net gain of two more seats. There are seven Senate races that appear competitive or potentially competitive — but Republicans currently hold four of those seats. To win a majority the GOP will have to successfully defend four vulnerable seats, and defeat two of the three Democratic incumbents they are targeting.

Competitive/Potentially Competitive Democratic Seats:

10th District (Parts of Island, Skagit, and Snohomish counties) Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D) v Rep. Barbara Bailey (R):  Rep. Barbara Bailey will challenge Haugen who has served in Olympia since 1982.  Bailey was elected to the House in 2002. The 10th is made up of parts of the northwest Puget Sound and leans Republican. 

This will be a war and potentially one of the most expensive legislative races in state history: Leaning Republican.

1st District  (Bothell, Northshore) Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D) v Dawn McCravey(R):  Republicans tried to recruit Bothell Mayor Mark Lamb to run against McAuliffe. Instead the candidate is Dawn McCravey, a member of the Northshore School Board. McAuliffe is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee and is considered a close ally of the Washington Education Association. Before facing McCravey, McAuliffe needs to get past fellow Democrat Guy Palumbo who is running as a pro-education reform Democrat in favor of charter schools.

The 1st definitely leans Democratic, but if the education reform groups and the Senate Republicans choose to spend big money here, McAuliffe will have a fight on her handsLeaning Democrat.

19th (Grays Harbor, Pacific and Wahkiakum counties) Sen. Brian Hatfield (D) v Rick Winsman (R):  Republicans think they can break through and win a race in the very rural 19th. Hatfield has served in the House and Senate since 1994 and has never faced a tough race.  Winsman recently retired as the CEO of the Longview-Kelso Chamber of Commerce. If the Senate Rs truly decide to target this race it will be competitive. Leaning Democrat.

Competitive/Potentially Competitive Republican Seats:

5th (Issaquah, Sammamish plateau) Mark Mullet (D) v Brad Toft (R):  The 5th produced the big shock of filing week. Veteran Republican Sen. Cheryl Pflug filed for re-election, and then withdrew at the last minute when the governor appointed her to the Growth Management Hearings Board, a full-time state job paying over $92,000 a year. Mullet is an Issaquah City Council member, has raised over $60,000, and appears to be a strong candidate. Toft, a businessman and civic activist, had filed earlier and becomes the de facto Republican candidate.

The 5th leans heavily Republican, but what kind of a candidate is Toft? At this point the 5th is a toss up.

17th (Vancouver suburbs)  Sen. Don Benton (R) v Rep. Tim Probst (D):  The 17th is a very Republican district, but Tim Probst is the one Democrat who has survived there, and now he has decided to run against veteran Republican Don Benton. You have to give Benton the advantage based on the district, but this could be quite a battle. Leaning Republican.

28th (Lakewood, University Place) Sen. Mike Carrell (R) v. Yoshie Wong (D):  Carrell was elected to the House in 1994, and has served in the Senate since 2004.  He has narrowly survived several close elections in the 28th, which is a district that leans towards Democrats.  Wong is a Steilacoom School Board member.  She is getting a very late start, but if the Senate Democrats decide to invest money here they can put Carrell under pressure. Leaning Republican.

41st (Mercer Island, south Bellevue)  Sen. Steve Litzow (R) v Maureen Judge (D):  The conventional wisdom is that moderate Litzow is safe due to his high profile support for same sex marriage. Perhaps. But the 41st leans pretty heavily to the Ds, and Judge, as the former executive director of the Washington Toxics Coalition, has the resume of a serious candidate. If the Democrats are willing to spend the money they can make this race competitive.  Leaning Republican.

House of Representatives

In the House, the Republicans are definitely playing offense. Only four of the 14 highly competitive races are for Republican held seats, but to achieve a majority the GOP will have to win 12 of those 14 races.

This is the best guess at this point on how to categorize the races:

  • Safe D seats: 44
  • Likely D: 2
  • Safe R: 31
  • Likely R: 7
  • Lean D: 5 (All currently Democratic seats)
  • Lean R:  5 (3 GOP seats, 2 D seats)
  • Toss Up: 4 (3 D seats, 1 GOP seat)

All 98 seats are up. Republicans need a net gain of eight to take a 50-48 majority. 

Toss Ups:

25th, currently open Republican (Puyallup and Sumner): Six candidates are running, but the nominees are likely to be Republican chamber of commerce executive Shelly Schlumpf and Democratic former Rep. Dawn Morrell.

35th open Democratic (Shelton, Mason County):  Republican Drew MacEwen, president of the Mason County Chamber of Commerce, vs. Democratic County Commissioner Linda Ring-Erickson.

35th Democratic Rep. Kathy Haigh vs. Republican firefighter Dan Griffey:  Griffey garnered 49% of the vote against Haigh four years ago and is outraising her so far this campaign.

28th (Lakewood and University Place) Open Democratic:  The D candidate will be University Place City Councilman Eric Choiniere.  Republicans will choose between Steve O’ Ban, who received 47% running against an incumbent in 2010, and Ken Campbell, who ran for the University Place City Council last year.

Lean Republican:

6th (Spokane suburbs) Open Republican:  Former Democratic House member Dennis Dellwo will face off against one of three Republicans:  Cheney school superintendent Larry Keller, attorney Jeff Holy, or legislative staffer Ben Oakley.

25th (Puyallup, Sumner) Republican Rep. Hans Zeiger vs. Democrat Bill Hilton.  Hilton is a retired state patrol Captain.  Freshman Zeiger won by 47 votes two years ago.

30th (Federal Way) Democratic Open:  Five candidates have filed. The Democratic nominee is likely to be Roger Flygare, a business owner who has run for local office before. Republicans are choosing between two strong, well-known local politicians, school board President Tony Moore, and City Councilmember Linda Kochmar.

47th (Kent, Auburn, Covington) GOP Rep. Mark Hargrove vs. Democrat Bud Sizemore. In this swing district, freshman Hargrove has drawn a strong opponent in Sizemore, a former Covington City Council member.

17th (Vancouver suburbs) Democrat Open:  Republican school board President Julie Olson starts out as the slight favorite over Democratic teacher Monica Stonier in a district that is trending R.

Lean Democratic:

26th (Gig Harbor) Democratic Rep. Larry Seaquist vs. Republican Doug Richards:  The 26th leans to the GOP, and Richards — a fire chief — received 47% of the vote against Seaquist in 2010.

31st (Auburn, Enumclaw, Bonney Lake) Democratic Rep. Chris Hurst vs. Republican Lisa Connors:  Hurst is a strong campaigner.  But the 31st is a Republican district, and Connors, a member of the Auburn school board, is a credible candidate.

44th (Marysville, Mill Creek) Democratic Rep. Hans Dunshee vs. Republican Mark Harmsworth: The GOP is going to try once again to unseat Dunshee in this Republican leaning district.  There are two Republicans running, but the stronger appears to be Mill Creek City Councilman Mark Harmsworth.

45th (Redmond, Woodinville) Democratic Rep. Roger Goodman vs. Republican Joel Hussey:  Hussey has never run for office, but Goodman barely survived in 2010, winning with only 51% of the vote.

28th (Lakewood, University Place) Democratic Rep. Tami Green vs. Republican Paul Wagemann or Republican Malcolm Russell:  Wagemann, a school board member, nearly beat Green two years ago.  Russell is the chairman of the Pierce County Planning Commission, and also appears to be a strong candidate.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.