So what does Republican Jan Angel's unseating of Democratic incumbent state Sen. Nathan Schlicher really mean?
Angel has a clear and growing 52-48 percent lead over Schlicher, who conceded late Thursday. He had been appointed to fill fellow Democrat Derek Kilmer's seat in January when Kilmer was elected to Congress. This race pitted state Rep. Angel, who has a long record in Kitsap County politics, against political rookie Schlicher in a classic swing district that tends to elect either very conservative Republicans or moderate Democrats.
With Angel in place in the Senate when 2014 legislative elections are held, the Democrats will have to knock off two Republican senators instead of one to regain control of the Senate. For Republicans, her win gives them a better chance of keeping control of the Senate and, with it, a strong say in state government.
The Schlicher-Angel race has outspent every Washington legislative race in history. The pair spent almost $3 million between them — with the majority of the donations coming from out of state and from political action committee contributions. Usually, a legislative candidate spends in the neighborhood of $100,000, so a normal race would tally about $200,000 in total expenses.
The big donations and spending appear to be part of a growing trend parties and special interests pouring huge amounts of money into swing districts to try to gain an advantage in Washington's almost evenly divided Senate. The most recent example was the Don Benton-Tim Probst Senate race in 2012, where combined donations ran to $800,000. Incumbent Republican Benton's victory in a Vancouver area district over Democrat Probst by 71 votes still allowed the Senate Democrats a 26-23 majority. But the narrow lead prompted Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch to switch sides to create the 23-Republican-two-Democrat Majority Coalition Caucus.
With the coalition holding a 25-24 advantage, Tom became the majority leader, shifting the debate in Olympia toward holding down expenditures and forcing the Democratic House and Gov. Jay Inslee to move more slowly with initiatives on transportation and climate change.
Here is how the political math works out as the two parties prepare for the 2014 elections, which will determine which side controls the Senate in the second half of Inslee's term. With Angel's win, the Majority Coalition Caucus now has 24 Republicans and the two defecting Democrats -- bumping its 25-24 advantage to 26-23 in January. The majority coalition has had strong caucus discipline with no one in that caucus ever jumping the aisle on any significant votes — even when the coalition's moderates disagreed with the caucus' conservatives.
A look at the senators up for re-election in 2014 shows five swing districts probably in play — four held by Republicans or Majority Coalition members and one held by a mainstream Democrat. Four are in Seattle's suburbs and the fifth is Angel, in southern Kitsap County's 26th District.
An immediate complication for the Republicans' 2014 political chances is that businesses and people in the four Seattle suburban districts came out strongly for a transportation revenue package — including a possible gas tax hike of up to 10.5 cents a gallon — in recent public hearings. The seats of Sens. Tom, Andy Hill, R- Redmond, and Joe Fain, R-Auburn, are all in that area, and the three have — at least so far — joined the coalition's large conservative contingent in fighting the tax increase. Fain's district has tended to be slightly more Republican than the other ones, however.
The 44th represented by Sen.Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens. Hobbs is a centrist Democrat who faces rumblings of a challenge from the left.
In the 26th, Angel will have to run again in the fall, since the remainder of Kilmer's term will be ending. But she will have the advantage of incumbency and even more name familiarity. And Republicans will enter the 2014 election with a less daunting task in seeking to hold both the district and a firm grip on one part of state government, giving them a real say in state policies.