Change of control in Legislature: A shot for both sides

The stakes are big for Gov. Jay Inslee and his hopes for climate protection and school improvements.
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Gov. Jay Inslee

The stakes are big for Gov. Jay Inslee and his hopes for climate protection and school improvements.

Washington's Democrats will play offense for the next six months. The state's Republicans will play defense.

The battle will be for control of the 49-member state Senate — the one spot in Olympia where Republicans have been able to stop the Democrats' legislative agendas.

The Democrats have a 55-43 advantage in the House, meaning the GOP would have to win almost every swing district to obtain a 49-49 split or to control the lower chamber. This is theoretically possible, but the GOP would need a huge amount of luck, even given gains in recent House elections.

The real battleground is the Senate. Right now, the Majority Coalition Caucus — made up of 24 Republicans and two Democrats — controls that chamber. As a practical matter, almost everyone in Olympia considers the two Democrats — Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch —- as de facto Republicans, even though coalition members maintain they are technically Democrats.

The bottom is line is that the minority Democrats need to gain two seats to retake control of the Senate, which they lost in late 2012 when Tom and Sheldon switched sides.

The stakes in the fight for Senate control are big, starting with whether Gov. Jay Inslee will get any of his climate change agenda through the Legislature. That was his signature issue in his campaign for governor as well as when he was in Congress. But the battle will also determine whether social services will take a major hit so the state government can comply with a Washington Supreme Court order to increase education spending; whether tax breaks will be closed to raise more money for education; and whether taxes will increase overall. And the outcome could influence whether the Senate remains in a long-running deadlock with Inslee and the Democratic House over a $10 billion-plus transportation projects.

"We don't see it as a deadlock. We see it as preventing bad things from happening," said Washington Republican Party chairwoman Susan Hutchison. Taxes and college tuitions did not increase during the coalition's control of the Senate. "We see everything swinging Republican. Everyone sees the effects of government overreach," she said.

On the other side, state Democratic chairman Jaxon Ravens said the public is frustrated by the deadlock in the transportation package, which covers needed repairs and improvements in highways and ferries, as well as creating construction jobs. Also, the parallel deadlock on implementing the Supreme Courts education requirements could reflect poorly on the majority coalition, he said. "What (the majority coalition) did in reality is not lead. I think in reality, they pissed a lot of people off," Ravens said.

Both Hutchison and Ravens argue that their party will gain Senate seats in November.

Washington's legislative districts have been gerrymandered to ensure a majority of those areas are safe Republican and Democratic regions. Five to 10 of the 49 districts can be considered swing districts, depending on how strictly or loosely you define a swing district.

The reason that Republicans should be considered on defense is that eight swing seats were held by six Republicans and two majority coalition Democrats at the beginning of this year. Only two minority Democrat Senate seats can be realistically considered in play. The Democrats would need to hang on to their two seats and pick up another two to take control — winning four of the 10 elections. The 10 seats up for grabs would be the 6th Legislative in Eastern Washington and nine in the Puget Sound suburbs.

If you are go with the five seats-actually-in-play scenario, four majority coalition slots and one minority Democrat seat could be considered tight races. Democrats would have to win three of the five to take over the Senate. The five seats in play with this scenario would be the 26th, 28th, 30th, 45th and 48th, all in the Puget Sound area.

Candidates will actually file officially for election next week from Monday through May 16. Consequently, new candidates could show up, or some already announced candidates could drop out. Here is a rundown of what is currently known or expected, starting with the five that might be key to a change of control.

  • 48th District, Medina plus chunks of Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond: No matter what, this will be the most-watched state Senate race. And it's one of the Democrats' better chances of picking up a seat.

This is the home to Sen. Rodney Tom, the Medina Democrat who joined the Republicans with Sheldon in 2012 to create the Majority Coalition Caucus, giving the GOP control of the Senate. But he recently dropped out of the race, citing family reasons.

Democrats and Republicans viewed Tom's 2014 re-elections as a high-profile referendum on the majority coalition's agenda — with each side predicting victory. After some clumsy public jockeying, the Democrats selected one-term Rep. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, as their Senate candidate. The GOP is still looking for its candidate. So far, Habib has raised $31,577, and has spent $19,102.

The 48th appears to lean Democratic, going to Democrats Maria Cantwell and Jay Inslee in 2012. In fact among the swing Senate districts, it's one of only two that didn't split its vote, going for Democrat Cantwell and Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna. Its demographics have been shifting in the Democrats' favor.

  • 45th District, Redmond and parts of Kirkland, Woodinville and Carnation: In 2010, political rookie and former Microsoft manager Andy Hill defeated one-term Democratic incumbent Eric Oemig by a 51-percent-to-49-percent split. Now Hill is the one-termer facing his own challenge from Democratic rookie and Amazon product manager Matt Isenhower.

Hill is a moderate and is the Senate GOP's chief budget writer. However, the majority coalition demanded tight caucus discipline from its moderates. That translated to some moderates having more conservative voting records in 2013 and 2014 than they would have had otherwise. In the last session, the caucus shifted twice from its original conservative positions to moderate ones. Consequently, moderate Republicans like Hill were allowed to vote in favor of rental vouchers for the poor and to allow high school graduates whose parents are undocumented immigrants to apply for college aid.

Isenhower has a long way to go to catch up to Hill's war chest. Hill has raised $218,126 and has spent $21,080 so far. Isenhower has raised $47,901, while spending $12,088.

  • 30th District, southwestern King County and a bit of northern Pierce County: This might be the Republicans' best chance at picking up a Senate seat. And a Republican victory would drastically reduce the Democrats' chances of regaining control of the Senate. After 16 years, Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, unexpectedly announced her retirement, catching her own party flatfooted.

Mark Miloscia, who had represented the district for seven terms as a Democratic representative before leaving in 2012 to make an unsuccessful run at state auditor, then announced a switch to the GOP to run for Eide's seat. Miloscia easily won his state representative races as a Democrat. But he has been always uncomfortable with the Democrats' positions on gay marriage and abortion.

The Democratic establishment recruited real-estate agent and former Federal Way resident Shari Song as its preferred candidate. Hutchison said Song faces carpet-bagging charges since she had to move from Bellevue back to Federal Way to be eligible for the candidacy. Song lost a 2013 King County Council race against Republican Reagan Dunn of Bellevue.

So far, Miloscia has raised $19,495 and has spent $370. Song has raised $5,725 and has spent nothing. This is the other district that went for both Cantwell and, less strongly, for Inslee in 2012.

  • 28th District, a major chunk of western and southern Piece County: This is universally considered the most wide open Senate race. Nurse and five-term Rep Tami Green, D-Lakewood, will take on attorney Steve O' Ban, R-Tacoma, who was elected to the House in 2012 and appointed to fill Mike Carrell's GOP senate seat in 2013 when the senator died. Bottom line: Both have conducted winning election campaigns in the district.

Green concentrates on health care legislation, while O'Ban heavily criticized Inslee's moratorium on executions, unsuccessfully trying to nullify it legislatively. Three of the nine men on Washington's Death Row committed murders in Pierce County. Hutchison contended that will be a factor in his favor during the election.

So far, Green has raised $47,141 and has spent $14,392. O'Ban has raised $114,204 and has spent $55,861.

  • 26th District, southern Kitsap and a bit of Pierce counties: Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, will be running in her third election in three years. With eight years as a Kitsap County commissioner followed by two-and-a-half terms in the House, Angel ran in a special one-year race in November 2013 against one-year Democratic appointee Nathan Schlicher. She won 52 percent to 48 percent.

Schlicher is running for Angel's old House seat held by one-year GOP appointee Jesse Young, R-Port Orchard, who replaced Angel. Meanwhile, retired teacher and teacher's union chief Judy Arbogast of Olalla, a Democrat, is taking on Angel, a small business owner. So far, Angel has raised $38,903 and has spent $7,711. Arbogast has raised $19,950 and has spent $205.

Angel gained some unwanted attention in her first Senate term when she surprisingly and abruptly killed a bipartisan bill in a committee she chaired that would have maintained a small home sales fee in place as a source for financial help to the poor and homeless for rent. The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus took massive amounts of heat for that move, and arranged for Angel to revive a modified version of that bill on the last day of the 2014 session, which passed easily and saved the homeless funding.

Here are the other five districts that are at least in some state of play.

  • 6th District, suburban Spokane and rural Spokane County: Mike Baumgartner is finishing his first term. He is one of the more conservative Republicans in the Senate, and an outspoken critic of the Washington Supreme Court's opinions that the Legislature must allocate more money to K-3 education. His chief opponent is Spokane film producer Rich Cowan.

In 2012, Baumgartner and Cowan each ran unsuccessfully for congressional seats. Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell defeated Baumgartner 60 percent to 40 percent, including edging him in his own district. Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers held off Cowan by a 61-percent-to-39-percent margin.

Ravens thinks Baumgartner is the most vulnerable GOP senator east of the Cascades. Other than the city of Spokane, Eastern Washington is a GOP stronghold. Hutchison is confident in Baumgartner's re-election chances, but says the race will be expensive. In 2010, Baumgartner spent $438,351 to knock off one-term Democratic incumbent Chris Marr by a 54-to-46 percent split. Marr spent $556,942. An average legislative candidate spends in the range of $100,000 to $150,000.

So far, Baumgartner has raised $130,682 and has spent $43,735. Cowan has raised $93,737 and has spent $29,706.

  • 35th District, Mason plus parts of Kitsap and Thurston counties: Ravens is pinning Democratic hopes on a three-way scenario in which incumbent Sen. Tim Sheldon, who will be the only Democrat left in the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus when Sen. Tom departs at the end of the year, could come in third during the August primary. That scenario is rooted in 2010 when Sheldon defeated Republican challenger Nancy Williams by a 62-percent-to-38-percent margin. Sheldon outspent Williams $113,990 to $6,245 in that election.

Ravens theorizes that same 38 percent might vote against Sheldon, no matter what, as too liberal. From the right this year, Sheldon faces libertarian Republican Travis Couture, a small business owner from Belfair.  From the left comes Democrat Irene Bowling, a small business owner from Chico Way. Ravens is gambling that Sheldon might come in third behind a libertarian on the right and a Democrat on the left. Hutchison believes that scenario is unlikely.

Sheldon is a longtime proven vote-getter, while the other two are political rookies. He is a two-term Mason County commissioner. In addition, he has served his legislative district three times as a state representative and four times as a state senator — a 22-year unbroken streak. Despite his GOP alliance, Sheldon has steadfastly refused to switch parties, saying he is loyal to the 1960s version of the Democratic Party that he joined as a youth.

His refusal to switch parties could theoretically affect his run. The state GOP has rules against contributing money to a Democrat, even one who tends to vote Republican in the Legislature. But that does not seem to have affected him so far.  Sheldon has otherwise raised $81,354 and has spent $16,675. Republican Couture has raised $9,082 and has spent $7,592. Democrat Bowling has raised $22,935 and has spent $6,083.

  • 42nd District, more or less Whatcom County: Ravens suggests this district is ripe for picking by the Democrats in the war for Senate seats — an idea that Hutchison described as far-fetched. Incumbent Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, served six terms in the House before moving to the Senate in 2010. His re-election tallies usually flirt with a comfortable 60 percent. Ericksen, like the districts' Republican representatives Jason Overstreet and Vincent Buys, is solidly in the conservative wing of the GOP.

Recently, Bellingham attorney Seth Fleetwood announced his candidacy as a Democrat. Fleetwood served two terms on the Bellingham City Council from 2009 to 2013. Fleetwood has not yet filed paperwork on finances with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. So far, Ericksen has raised $46,950 and has spent $6,161.

Ericksen has been the Senate Republicans' point person on environmental and energy issues, leading the GOP opposition to Inslee's climate-protection measures. Under Ericksen's leadership, the GOP has pushed for more study of nuclear power and revoking carbon-emission-reduction goals set in 2008. Neither side has prevailed with its plans for the past two years in the Legislature. 

  • 44th District, Snohomish County from Lake Stevens to Mill Creek: Two-term incumbent is Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, is high on the GOP's target list. On paper, the Republicans have a chance in the 44th. But while the Republicans have lined up Jim Kellett a few weeks ago as their candidate, he has collected only $200 so far and has spent $8. Meanwhile, Hobbs has collected $130,637 and has spent $11,061.

This district is a twilight zone between heavily Democratic and heavily Republican segments of Snohomish County. While socially liberal, Hobbs is one of the more fiscally conservative members of the minority Democrats the Senate. He has been one of the most likely to cross party lines on financial votes. However, the Majority Coalition Caucus has had a tendency to rebuff and dis him.

  • 47th District, Auburn Covington, Renton: Like Hill, Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, knocked off a Democratic incumbent, Claudia Kaufman, in 2010 and is facing his first re-election. However, Fain's showing was a more solid 55-percent-to-45-percent split. In theory, the 47th is supposed to be a swing district, but the Democrats have not fielded a candidate yet.

Also like Hill, Fain is a moderate shouldering a more conservative voting record than he would otherwise have because of the majority coalition's dominating conservative wing.

In football, it's often considered better to be on the offense than the defense. But it's also said that defense wins championships. In the months ahead, Washingtonians will find out which sports slogan better applies to the state political arena these days.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8