Washington Senate: Headed for a Republican power shift?

Inside Politics: A handful of close state senate races put a more conservative future for Olympia firmly on the table.
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Washington's new legislative districts.

Inside Politics: A handful of close state senate races put a more conservative future for Olympia firmly on the table.

Followers of the presidential race are treated to a new poll just about every 15 minutes. At the other end of the spectrum though are races for state legislature positions, where public polls are virtually non-existent. Without polling, a pundit is left with just three indicators to a race's outcome: the partisan make-up of the district, the results of the primary election and what information a person can glean from talking to consultants working directly on key legislative races.

Individual campaigns and the Republican and Democratic legislative campaign committees do engage in private polling. I have been talking to Republican consultants working on legislative races. Here is where they believe things stand in the battle for control of the House and Senate.


In the State Senate, only 4 races appear competitive heading into the fall.  Republicans will have to win at least 3 of those to gain a 25-24 majority. 

Republicans believe polling shows they are on track to defeat veteran Democratic incumbent Mary Margaret Haugen in the 10th district (Parts of Island, Skagit, and Snohomish counties). Running head to head in the August primary, Republican Rep. Barbara Bailey led Haugen 53 percent to 47 percent. Haugen is a tough campaigner, but the 10th leans heavily Republican. All signs point to Republican pick up here.

Republicans also believe Sen. Don Benton is ahead in his race against Democrat Rep. Tim Probst in the 17th district (Vancouver suburbs). Benton led Probst 52 percent to 48 percent in the primary, and the 17th is a very Republican district. Again, this seems a likely win for the GOP.

Control of the Senate, therefore, is likely to come down to two races: the open seat race in the 5th district (Sammamish and Issaquah) and the battle in the 1st district (Bothell, Northshore).

The 5th district race has been unusual, to say the least. GOP Senator Cheryl Pflug withdrew at the last possible moment, was appointed by our Democratic governor to a high paying state job, and is now supporting Democrat Mark Mullet over Republican Brad Toft. Mullet led Toft 53 percent to 47 percent in the primary, but the 5th leans heavily Republican and Republican consultants claim to have polling showing Toft slightly ahead. This race is too close to call.

The 1st district, on the other hand, leans heavily Democratic. This race pits Democrat Rosemary McAuliffe, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, against Republican Dawn McCravey, a school board member. Republicans acknowledge that polls show McAuliffe ahead, but claim that McCravey is within striking distance.

One other race deserves attention. The conventional wisdom holds that uber-moderate Republican, Steve Litzow, will be re-elected in the 41st district (Mercer Island, Bellevue), but the 41st is now a very Democratic district. If there is a surprise in the Senate it will probably happen here.


All 98 seats are up. Republicans need a net gain of eight to take a 50-48 majority. Consistent with the results of the August primary, Republican consultants see 12 seats seriously in play, with  four of those held by the GOP. A Republican majority still appears unlikely, but the GOP appears poised to gain House seats, just as they have in the past two elections.

Based on polling and other factors, Republican strategists believe they are likely to win open Democratic seats in the 17th (Suburban Vancouver), 28th (Lakewood) and 35th (Shelton) districts.

That leaves nine races that Republicans believe are very competitive:

  • 25th Open Republican (Puyallup and Sumner). Republican chamber of commerce executive Shelly Shlumpf vs. Democratic former Rep. Dawn Morrell.
  • 28th (Lakewood, University Place). Democratic Rep. Tami Green vs. Republican Paul Wagemann.
  • 30th (Federal Way). Republican Rep. Katrina Asay vs. Democrat Roger Freeman. 
  • 10th Open Republican (Skagit and Island counties). Republican David Hayes vs. Democrat Tom Riggs. 
  • 30th Open Democratic (Federal Way). Republican Linda Kochmar vs. Democrat Roger Flygare. 
  • 47th (Kent, Auburn, Covington). GOP Rep. Mark Hargrove vs. Democrat Bud Sizemore.  
  • 35th (Shelton). Democratic Rep. Kathy Haigh vs. Republican Dan Griffey.
  • 44th (Marysville, Mill Creek). Democratic Rep. Hans Dunshee vs. Republican Mark Harmsworth. 
  • 45th (Redmond, Woodinville). Democratic Rep. Roger Goodman vs. Republican Joel Hussey.

My best guess? Control of the Senate will be decided by the outcome of the brawl in the 5th district. Either way, Seattle Democrats will not have effective control of the Senate floor given the number of moderate, “roadkill” Democrats who will be willing to work with the GOP.

Across the rotunda, Republicans will hold between 45 and 47 seats, giving the Democrats only a 2 to 4 four vote majority. This will embolden the handful of roadkill Ds in the House to duplicate the powerbroker role enjoyed by their moderate Senate colleagues.

One key caveat: This analysis is based on the current partisan atmosphere created by the national campaign. If Mitt Romney or Barack Obama create a significant surge for their party in the closing days of the campaign, legislative races will be affected big time.


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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.