Olympia: A bit more red in the color of the Legislature

News analysis: Republicans are genuinely competitive again in Washington state, but the voters in 2016 will expect results from their choices this year.
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Washington State Capitol

News analysis: Republicans are genuinely competitive again in Washington state, but the voters in 2016 will expect results from their choices this year.

Sometimes the polls aren’t wrong and elections turn out just as predicted. All the trends indicated that Republicans, benefitting from President Obama’s low approval rating, and low voter turnout, would make gains in Washington, D.C., and Olympia; and that is exactly what happened.

Already, we can begin to see how much the state political scene is changing in Republicans' favor now, and what challenges that might bring if they want to maintain their gains in the future.

As of late Wednesday morning, here is how the battle for control of the state Legislature looked:

There are no close Senate races. Republican Andy Hill’s race in the 45th district is the closest, and he is at 53 percent. The Senate will be 25-24 Republican, with conservative Democrat Tim Sheldon making it a 26-23 GOP coalition majority

No Republican House seats are in danger, and Republicans are ahead in the following D house seats: Republican challenger Melanie Stambaugh, with 53 percent, over Rep. Dawn Morrell in the 25th District around Puyallup; Republican challenger Lynda Wilson (51 percent) over Rep. Monica Stonier in Clark County's 17th District; Republican challenger Michelle Caldier ahead of Rep. Larry Seaquist by 78 votes in the 26th on the Kitsap Peninsula; Republican Paul Wageman ahead by 69 votes in the race for an open seat in the 28th District in part of Tacoma and southwest Pierce County. In addition, Republican Dan Griffey is trailing Rep. Kathy Haigh by only 223 votes in the 35th District around Shelton.

The House Ds could end up with just a 50-48 majority if all these seats go Republican. The Democrats’ big House majority is gone. Now the question is, will there be an attempt to cobble together a coalition between the GOP and conservative Democrats in the House, as there is in the Senate?

What led to this Republican victory just two years after Barack Obama and Jay Inslee cruised to victory in Washington state?

First, Senate Republicans caught a huge break in Federal Way’s 30th District when Democratic Sen. Tracey Eide chose to retire, and former Democratic House member Mark Miloscia chose to run as a Republican. Federal Way is trending Democratic over the long run. It took these two fortunate events to put that seat in the GOP’s column

Second, under the new leadership of Rep. Dan Kristiansen, the House Republicans have improved their political operation. They are recruiting better candidates, making better targeting decisions and running better campaigns than in years past.

Third, and most importantly, turnout favored Republicans. Looking at national exit polls, the electorate in 2014 was older, wealthier, and whiter than in 2012

In 2012, 19 percent of the voters were between the ages of 18 and 29. This year those voters made up 13 percent of the electorate. Two years ago, 16 percent of voters were over 65; this year it was 22 percent.

In 2012, 41 percent of voters made less than $50,000 per year. This year that dropped to 36 percent. Two years ago, 59 percent of voters made more than $50,000 annually; this year, 64 percent.

And in 2012, whites comprised 72 percent of the electorate. This year it was 75%.

After the Democratic landslides of 2006 and 2008, Republicans have now rallied and once again are competitive in both houses of the Legislature. Our sharply divided electorate has left us with divided government.

Now the question is, can Republicans and Democrats work together in Olympia?

Two mega issues will confront lawmakers in January: the need to address our underfunded transportation system, and the court order to make significant progress to achieve full state funding of K-12 education. Nothing of substance was accomplished on these issues the last two years. If gridlock continues, who will voters blame in 2016?

The 2016 election is too far in the future to make predictions possible, but one thing is certain: Republicans won’t have the advantage of low turnout in a presidential election year. To take the next step in Washington State the GOP will need to offer voters superior ideas and candidates, because they will not be able to rely on many Americans choosing not to vote.


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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.