Inside Politics: Winners and losers in the home stretch

With only eleven weeks left in the election cycle, what to expect in Washington races.
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Rep. Jay Inslee is interviewed on KCTS 9 by Enrique Cerna.

With only eleven weeks left in the election cycle, what to expect in Washington races.

There only eleven weeks left in this joyless, passionless campaign season. Americans always complain about the negativity of campaigns and being forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, but in the past there has been real enthusiasm for at least one Presidential candidate. Democrats were certainly excited to support Barack Obama four years ago, just as Republicans were enthused for George W. Bush in 2000, and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

But this year, President Obama’s approval ratings have been consistently below 50 percent and Mitt Romney’s are even worse.  Both campaigns are avoiding substance and specifics, focusing instead on relentlessly attacking the other. The negativity makes voters even less enthusiastic about the choice they have to make, as they continue to worry and wonder if the economy will ever recover.  Has there ever been a more depressing campaign?

And yet there will be an election in 11 short weeks. Today the national polls are close, but President Obama leads in most of the critical battleground states. Republicans, however, lead slightly in the generic ballot. It appears the GOP will maintain control of the U.S. House, and has a fighting chance to win a majority in the Senate. 

If the election were held today it would likely produce more gridlock in Washington, DC.

In this Washington it appears that the national atmosphere is favorable enough to allow Republicans to win back more of the ground they lost in the Democratic landslides of 2006 and 2008, but can they break through and elect Rob McKenna governor?

In most states the primary election simply decides the nominees of the two parties. In Washington however, the top two system, with no party filter, also serves as a rough poll, telling us which races are truly competitive. With virtually all ballots now counted, we now have a sense of where things stand in Washington state's critical races.

The Race: Governor.

The Verdict: For months polls have showed Republican Rob McKenna slightly ahead in the Governor’s race. Then Democrat Jay Inslee ran two flights of positive, biographical TV ads (as did McKenna) and it now appears Inslee has a slight advantage.  This is based on the results of the primary, in which Inslee and one other D garnered 50.5 percent, while the combined Republican percentage was just over 47 percent. The last two public polls also showed Inslee slightly ahead.   

McKenna is running an excellent campaign, but Inslee is  benefiting from the generic advantage Ds enjoy in Washington state. Neither side has spent money defining the other yet. The McKenna campaign has a strong argument: Change is needed after 28 years of one-party control in Olympia. Still, they'll have to hope that that message is powerful enough to win over the independent and soft Ds needed to win.

For now, call this race a toss up.

The Race: U.S. House and Senate.

The Verdict: The primary confirmed what has been assumed all year: Senator Maria Cantwell and all Washington House incumbents are cruising to re-election, and Democrat Denny Heck is the overwhelming favorite to win the new 10th district.

In the open seat race in the 6th congressional district, Democrat Derek Kilmer won 53.5 percent of the primary vote. Bill Driscoll easily won the crowded Republican primary, with the combined GOP vote at 44 percent. Driscoll has the money to compete, but it is hard to imagine a message Driscoll could craft against Kilmer that would overcome the Democrat advantage in this district.

The real race is in the sprawling new 1st district. Democrat Suzan DelBene’s personal money helped her win the Democratic nomination, but now she faces Republican John Koster. This district was drawn to be a toss up between the two parties. Until we see some head to head polling let’s assume this race is dead even.

The Race: Attorney General. 

The Verdict: In the primary, Democrat Bob Ferguson received 51.8 percent, while Republicans Reagan Dunn and Stephen Pidgeon garnered a combined 48.2 percent. Neither side spent money in the primary. To the public, this race is still undefined. It still appears that it will be very close in November.

State Senate

While not unheard of, it is highly unusual for a candidate to overcome a 10 point primary disadvantage in Washington state. I have generally used that threshold to determine which races are still truly competitive.

In the state Senate, only four races appear competitive heading into the fall. Republicans will have to win at least three of those to gain a 25-24 majority. While that doesn’t appear likely, it does seem probable that the Senate will become more conservative overall, opening the door for Republicans to forge a working philosophical majority by partnering with a handful of “roadkill” moderate Democrats.

Republicans will pick up the open Democratic seat in the 25th district (Puyallup and Sumner). They need a net gain of two more to win a 25-24 majority.

Democratic Seats:

The race: 10th Legislative District (Parts of Island, Skagit, and Snohomish counties); Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D) v. Rep. Barbara Bailey (R).

The verdict: Running head to head, Bailey led Haugen 53 to 47 percent in the primary. Haugen is a tough campaigner, but the 10th leans Republican.

The race: 1st Legislative District (Bothell, Northshore); Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D) v. Dawn McCravey(R)

The verdict: Washington voters will be voting on a Charter School initiative this fall and McAuliffe, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, is a strong ally of the teachers union and a vocal opponent of charters and other education reforms. McAuliffe easily beat her pro-Charter School Democrat opponent in the primary with a combined D vote of 58 percent. 

But McCravey, a school board member, is a credible candidate. The 1st definitely leans Democratic, but if education reform groups continue to oppose McAuliffe and Senate Republicans spend big money here, McCauliffe will have a fight on her hands.

Republican Seats:

The race: 5th Legislative District (Issaquah, Sammamish plateau); Mark Mullet (D) v. Brad Toft (R). 

The verdict: Mullet led Toft 53 to 47 percent in the primary. The 5th leans heavily Republican, but stories about lawsuits in Toft’s past have dogged his campaign and Mullet appears to be a very good candidate. The 5th is a major problem for the GOP.

The race: 17th Legislative District (Vancouver suburbs); Sen. Don Benton (R) v. Rep. Tim Probst (D). 

The verdict: Benton led Probst 52 to 48 percent in the primary. Probst is an excellent campaigner, but so is Benton, and the 17th is a very Republican district.


House Overview

All 98 seats are up and Republicans need a net gain of eight to take a 50-48 majority. With only 12 seats seriously in play, and four of those held by the GOP, a Republican takeover appears unlikely. But Republicans appear poised to gain House seats, just as they have in the past two elections.

Toss Ups:

  • 25th Open Republican (Puyallup and Sumner); Republican Shelly Shlumpf v. Democrat Dawn Morrell. Republican chamber of commerce executive, Shelly Shlumpf, and Democratic former Rep. Dawn Morrell emerged as the contenders from this crowded primary. The combined D vote led the combined R vote 51 to 49 percent, and Morrell is a familiar name to voters, but the 25th has been trending Republican.
  • 28th (Lakewood, University Place); Democratic Rep. Tami Green v. Republican Paul Wagemann.  Wagemann, a school board member, nearly beat Green two years ago, but Green garnered 51 percent in the primary.
  • 30th (Federal Way); Republican Rep. Katrina Asay v. Democrat Roger Freeman. Freeman is a City Council member.  Asay is a freshman. The 30th leans slightly Democratic, and Asay received 48 percent in the primary, with two Democrats receiving 52 percent. It all adds up to a tough seat for the GOP to hold on to.

Lean Republican:

  • 10th (Skagit and Island counties) Open Republican; Republican David Hayes v. Democrat Tom Riggs. The biggest surprise of the primary may have come in the Republican-leaning 10th district, where Democrat Chamber executive Tom Riggs received 49 percent of the vote running head to head against Republican police officer and police association leader David Hayes.
  • 17th (Vancouver suburbs) Open Democratic; Republican Julie Olson v. Democrat Monica Stonier. The combined Republican vote led the combined D vote 53.5 to 45.5 percent in a district that is trending R.
  • 28th (Lakewood and University Place) Open Democratic; Republican Steve O’Ban v. Democrat Eric Choiniere. O’Ban nearly won two years ago, and Choiniere, running as the only D on the ballot, only received 43 percent in the primary. The 28th, however, leans slightly Democratic. This is likely to be close.
  • 30th (Federal Way) Open Democratic; Republican Linda Kochmar v. Democrat Roger Flygare. The 30th leans D, but Kochmar, a veteran city councilmember who has been on the ballot many times, is by far the more well-known candidate. The combined GOP vote in this crowded primary was 54 percent.
  •  47th (Kent, Auburn, Covington); GOP Rep. Mark Hargrove v. Democrat Bud Sizemore. In this swing district, freshman Hargrove has drawn a strong opponent in Sizemore, a former Covington city councilman. Hargrove led Sizemore 53 to 47 percent in the primary.

Lean Democratic:

  • 26th (Gig Harbor); Democratic Rep. Larry Seaquist v. Republican Doug Richards. The 26th leans to the GOP, and Richards — a fire chief — received 47 percent of the vote against Seaquist in 2010. In the primary, Seaquist led Richards 53.5 to 46.5 percent.
  • 35th (Shelton, Mason County), Position 1; Democratic Rep. Kathy Haigh v. Republican Dan Griffey. Griffey came away with 49 percent of the vote against Haigh four years ago, but in the primary, Haigh led 53 to 47.
  • 35th, Position 2, Open Democratic; Republican Drew MacEwen v. Democrat Linda Ring-Erickson. Republicans have high hopes for this district, but Ring-Erickson, a county commissioner, is the more well-known candidate and the combined D vote was nearly 9 percent higher than the combined R vote.
  • 44th (Marysville, Mill Creek); Democratic Rep. Hans Dunshee v. Republican Mark Harmsworth. The GOP is going to try once again to unseat Dunshee in this Republican-leaning district, but Dunshee garnered 52 percent of the vote running against two Republicans in the primary.

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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.