Primary Prognostication: Handicapping the Senate races

A preview of the contests in 10 Senate districts that could be in play. As go these districts, so goes the Senate - and the state.
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The Yakima River flows through the competitive 15th Legislative District.

A preview of the contests in 10 Senate districts that could be in play. As go these districts, so goes the Senate - and the state.

When the primary results roll in next Tuesday, take a look at the numbers from the 15th Legislative District.

The 15th occupies the mid-Yakima Valley, stretching from the eastern fringes of Yakima to Sunnyside and Granger. What to look for is how well Democrat Gabriel Munoz polls against longtime Republican incumbent Jim Honeyford in the state senate race.

Demographically, the 15th has transformed from a white majority to a district in which no racial group can claim the majority. The primary will be a first peek at whether Eastern Washington's long-dormant Hispanic voting bloc will finally flex some muscle.

Both Honeyford and Munoz have deep roots in the 15th, so this could be a legitimate showdown between the district's numerous Republican-leaning conservatives and the possibly equally numerous, Democratic-leaning Latinos. Munoz has been getting the district's Hispanic residents to register in an attempt at an upset.

Munoz trails in fund-raising by a significant margin: $97,288 to $4,535. But if he comes remotely close to Honeyford next Tuesday, it means that up to 10 of the state Senate's 49 seats could be in play in November. (Seats in the rest of Washington's districts are safe for their GOP or Democratic incumbents.)

The stakes are high. The Republican-dominated Washington Senate is the only political body with the clout to stop Gov. Jay Inslee’s agendas on climate change, transportation and education. Inslee's proposals include raising taxes and closing tax breaks, which makes the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, an alliance of 24 Republicans and two Democrats, a vital safeguard for taxpayers or a stubborn barrier to progress, depending on your personal politics.

On Tuesday, only one of the 10 potential swing districts has a do-or-die battle: the 35th. The other nine are merely straw polls for Republicans and Democrats to gauge the strength of candidates in those swing districts. The number of legitimate swing districts could shrink after Tuesday.

The 35th consists of Mason County, southwestern Kitsap County and western Thurston County. It is the only three-way race among the 10 state senate swing districts. Tuesday will reduce those three challengers to two. Democrat Tim Sheldon, the only Democrat who wants to remain in the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, is up against Democrat Irene Bowling and libertarian Republican Travis Couture. Sheldon, also a Mason County commissioner, has won nine straight elections (for state representative, state senator and Mason County commissioner). But Tuesday’s primary is the first election since Sheldon decamped to join the majority coalition.

His opponents, Bowling and Couture, hope they can trim enough votes from the right and left of Sheldon to put him in third place in a three-way race. If Sheldon places in the top two, he will likely pick up most of the votes of the third-place finisher. Bottom line: Anyone picking up one third of the primary ballots would need just one extra vote to be guaranteed a spot in the November election.

Overall, the GOP is playing defense.

With Sheldon and Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, the majority coalition had a 26-to-23 advantage over the minority Democrats. That means the minority Democrats have to pick up two seats to regain control of the Senate. Right now, only two of the 10 potential swing district seats are held by minority Democrats; eight are held by members of the Majority Coalition Caucus, including Sheldon and Tom.

Consequently, the minority Democrats must hold on to their two seats and knock off two coalition members. If the Democrats lose one of their two seats, then they must win three of the remaining eight.

Here's a rundown of those eight other potential Senate swing districts.

6th District
Southern and western Spokane, Cheney, Fairchild Air Force Base, and rural Spokane County

Longtime Spokane resident, filmmaker and Democrat, Rich Cowan is going against incumbent super-conservative Republican Michael Baumgartner in this district which leans toward the GOP. Democrats hope Cowan's deep roots and Baumgartner's very conservative stances will make the Republican vulnerable. Republicans disagree with that portrayal. Both sides are pumping a lot of money into this race: Baumgartner has raised $329,255 so far, Cowan has amassed $136,662.

26th District
Southern Kitsap County

Democrat and retired teacher Judy Arbogast is challenging veteran Republican legislator Jan Angel in this slightly GOP-leaning district. Democrats are pinning their hopes on two things: The district’s tendency, at times, to vote Democratic and Angel’s rough ride in Olympia last session. Still, Angel has raised $176,377 to date, nearly double Arbogast's $90,531 total.

28th District
Southern Pierce County.

This is a true toss-up. Republican Steve O'Ban, the incumbent, is up against longtime Democratic State Rep. Tami Green. Both are proven vote-getters - and fundraisers. The outcome will most likely depend on purely philosophical views of what happened in Olympia these past two years. Fundraising totals: Green $152,821, O'Ban's $368,729.

30th District
Northern Pierce and southern King Counties with Federal Way in the middle.

Another toss-up. Democratic incumbent Tracey Eide is retiring. Mark Miloscia, who represented the 30th for years as a conservative Democrat, has switched parties to run for Eides' seat. His opponent, Democrat Shari Song, recently moved from Bellevue to Federal Way to oppose him. Conventional wisdom says the 30th is the most vulnerable Democratic senate seat. War chest war: Miloscia’s $156,742 to Song’s $146,978.

42nd District
Major chunk of Whatcom County, plus parts of Bellingham. It has Democratic and Republican sub-regions within it.

Bellingham resident Seth Fleetwood, a Democrat, is gambling on incumbent Republican Doug Ericksen’s vulnerability. Ericksen has $180,841 in the bank compared to Fleetwood’s $97,159.

44th District
Stretching from Lake Stevens and Marysville to Mill Creek area.

This is the other Democrat seat in play, with Republican Jim Kellett challenging moderate Democratic incumbent Steve Hobbs. Kellett has collected $58,465; Hobbs $252,217.

45th District
Redmond, Kirkland and part of Bellevue.

This legislative race, the most expensive in the state, will be a bellwether on what the Seattle suburbs think of the Majority Coalition Caucus. Republican Sen. Andy Hill chairs the Senate Ways & Means Committee and enjoys a huge amount of Olympia clout. Democrat Matt Isenhower is challenging Hill in a district with no clear-cut Democratic or GOP leanings. Hill has raised more money than any other legislative candidate:  $471,752. Isenhower has raised more money than any other legislative challenger:  $165,849.

48th District
Medina and much of Bellevue.

This was supposed to be the really juicy race. Democrat Sen. Rodney Tom was going to have to defend his switch to the majority coalition in a district that has grown increasingly Democratic. But Tom decided not to run for re-election (personal health and family issues). Now, Democrat State Rep. Cyrus Habib is facing GOP political rookie Michelle Darnell for Tom's seat. Habib has banked $161,626 to Darnell's $7,022.

Let the voting begin.


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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