Table is set for furious battle over state Senate control

Inside Politics: The Rodney Tom race will be so strange as to defy prediction. Republicans would like to do so well they can drop Democrats as coalition partners.
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Sen. Rodney Tom during a public discussion of transportation (2013)

Inside Politics: The Rodney Tom race will be so strange as to defy prediction. Republicans would like to do so well they can drop Democrats as coalition partners.

Partisan elections for state and federal office run in six-year cycles, and this is definitely the quiet year for elections in Washington state. But the surface quiet conceals a storm that's brewing over control in Olympia.

Here's why: In 2014 there will be no U.S. Senate race, no statewide races for state office, and, at most, one seriously contested race for any of our 10 seats in the US House. For most of us, it may not feel like an election year at all. But if you live in one of the half dozen or so targeted state senate districts prepare for a lot of campaign noise. The battle for control of Olympia’s upper house is likely to be bitter, loud and very expensive.

Let’s start with the big picture. Will this be a year that favors Republicans or Democrats? It’s hard to tell at this point. Normally the president’s party loses seats in off year elections, especially in the sixth year of a president’s tenure. In addition, President Obama’s approval ratings are dismal, so 2014 should be a Republican year, right?

Not so fast. Republicans are even less popular than the president, with over 70 percent of Americans saying they disapprove of Republicans in Congress, the national voice and face of the GOP. 

Americans are grumpy, negative and mad at both parties. There hasn’t been much generic ballot polling to track voters' general party preferences for this election done yet, but the polls that have been done doesn’t show a real trend favoring either party. This could easily change, but right now it appears that candidates will win or lose on their own, without a dominant national partisan tide.

All 10 of our current Washington members of Congress are apparently running for re-election. Republicans are still trying to recruit a serious candidate to run against freshman House member Suzan DelBene in the sprawling 1st district. Republican polling shows this district actually leans slightly Republican, and the GOP is rumored to have a serious candidate who is preparing to announce. The 1st district race may get interesting. Other than that, the action is in Olympia.

State Senate Outlook

On paper, Democrats still hold a 25-24 majority in the upper house. In reality, the Senate is controlled by the Majority Coalition Caucus, comprised of 24 Republicans and two Democrats, Rodney Tom of Bellevue (48th Legislative District), and Tim Sheldon from Shelton (35th LD). When you throw in two more very moderate Democratic senators who oppose higher taxes, Steve Hobbs from Lake Stevens (44th LD), and Brian Hatfield from Raymond, (19th LD), traditional Democrats only hold 21 seats in the Senate.

Democrats and their allies are still furious over the defection of Sheldon and Tom, and are desperate to gain the two seats they need to retake nominal control of the Senate. Republicans and their allies would love to pick up one more seat to give them control without the need for a coalition, but would happily settle for the status quo. Senate races have become ridiculously expensive, with serious people throwing around numbers over $1 million per contested race. Amazing.

Half of the state Senate seats are up for election every two years. This cycle the Democrats have more competitive targets to shoot at. They will be the team on offense, for the most part.

One key note: the classifications —“toss-up,” “lean Republican,” etc. — are as of today, and are very dynamic and subject to change as the year goes on.

Here is the outlook on competitive Senate races as the year begins


28th LD (Lakewood, University Place): Sen. Steve O’Ban (R) vs. Rep. Tami Green (D): O’Ban was elected to the House for the first time in 2012, and then appointed to the Senate soon after when Republican Sen. Mike Carrell passed away. Green has been elected to the House five times. Green is more familiar to voters, but the district leans slightly Republican. This is going to be a war.

45th LD (Redmond/Woodinville): Sen. Andy Hill (R) vs. Matt Isenhower (D): Hill barely unseated a Democratic incumbent four years ago in a very good Republican year. Isenhower is a Navy veteran and now an executive at Amazon. Hill has served as Way and Means chairman under the coalition, making him the point person on budget issues. The district is evenly split; Rob McKenna won the 45th by 600 votes in his race for governor. This one is likely to be decided by a similar margin.

48th LD (Bellevue): Rodney Tom says he is running again, and running as Democrat. The Democrats, however, are backing former Kirkland mayor, Joan McBride. Democratic interest groups will spend a fortune trying to convince this Democratic-leaning district to elect a “real” Democrat. Bellevue voters have elected Tom as a Republican, and as a Democrat, but how will they react to him now? This race is too unusual and volatile to predict at this point.

Lean GOP/Coalition:

6th LD (Suburban Spokane): Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R) vs. Rich Cowan (D): Baumgartner is running for his first re-election. Cowan is a film producer who was the Democratic nominee for Congress against Cathy McMorriss Rodgers in 2012. Baumgartner ran a forgettable race for the U.S. Senate in 2012 against Sen. Maria Cantwell, he has infuriated unions with his calls to make a Washington a right-to-work state, and he is now attacking the state Supreme Court’s authority to demand more funding for education. But Baumgartner won this seat comfortably four years ago against a popular, moderate Democratic incumbent. This is Spokane County, and the 6th may not be winnable for the Ds unless there is a big national Democratic tide.

47th LD (Auburn/Kent/Covington): Freshman GOP Sen. Joe Fain has yet to draw an opponent. If a serious Democrat does run, this race moves to the toss-up column, because this south King County district is definitely highly competitive for both parties.

Lean Democratic:

30th LD (Federal Way): Will veteran Democratic Sen. Tracey Eide run again? Will former Federal Way Mayor and Republican House member, Skip Priest, run? The district leans to the Ds, but if Priest runs and/or Eide chooses to retire, this race will move to the toss-up column.

44th LD (Bothell area): Republicans are trying to recruit a serious opponent against Democratic incumbent, Steve Hobbs. The 44th leans slightly R, so this race could get hot if Republicans get the right candidate.

Likely Republican:

Democrats say they are looking for opponents for Republican incumbents, Jan Angel (26th LD, Gig Harbor), Pam Roach (31st LD, Bonney Lake), and Doug Ericksen (42nd LD, Whatcom), but all three districts lean pretty heavily to the R side, and these incumbents are all proven winners.

State House Outlook

Over the past three elections Republicans have reduced the what had been a nearly 2-to-1 Democratic majority (63-35) in the House to 12 seats, 55 to 43. It doesn’t appear likely Republicans can make a net gain of seven seats and take control, but has the GOP hit their high water mark, or can they creep a bit closer?

All 98 seats are up. Most seats are safe. Here is the current outlook on competitive races


17th LD (Vancouver area): Rep. Monica Stonier (D) vs. Lynda Wilson (R). Stonier won an open seat race by 139 votes in 2012. Wilson is a small business person and the recently resigned Clark County Republican chairman.

26th LD (Gig Harbor): Republican Jesse Young was just appointed to the open seat vacated by Jan Angel, who was elected to the Senate last year. The 26th is a swing district.

28th LD (Lakewood): Both House seats will be competitive. Republican Dick Muri was just appointed to fill O’Ban’s seat. Tami Green’s seat will be open as she runs for the Senate. The 28th is a true swing district.

30th LD (Federal Way): Federal Way leans slightly to the Ds. GOP Rep. Linda Kochmar won her seat two years ago by 655 votes. Democratic Rep. Roger Freeman won more comfortably, but is now undergoing cancer treatment. Will he run again? Will he run for the Senate if Eide doesn’t? For now, both seats look competitive.

35th LD (Shelton): Democratic Rep. Kathy Haigh won with only 51 percent of the vote in 2012 against Republican Dan Griffey. Can Haigh hold on in a district that leans to the GOP?

44th LD (Bothell/Mountlake Terrace): GOP Rep. Mike Hope is retiring, creating an open seat in a swing district.

47th LD (Kent/Auburn/Covington): Republican Rep. Mark Hargrove barely survived 2012, winning by only 157 votes. If he gets a serious challenge, this will be close again.

Given past election results, the following seats could become competitive if serious challengers emerge:

Potentially Competitive Republican seats:

Chad Magendanz (5th LD, Issaquah), Jeff Holy (6th LD, Spokane), David Hayes (10th LD, Skagit), Drew MacEwen (35th LD, Shelton), Liz Scott (39th LD, Skagit), Jason Overstreet and Vincent Buys (42nd, Whatcom).

Potentially Competitive Democratic seats:

Dawn Morrell (25th LD, Puyallup, Sumner), Larry Seaquist (26th LD, Gig Harbor), Hans Dunshee (44th LD, Bothell, Mountlake Terrace).


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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.