Races to watch in the Washington Legislature this year

With President Joe Biden and national Democrats facing headwinds, WA state Senator Emily Randall and other incumbents are working hard to avoid a red wave.

A politician working at her desk while surrounded by empty desks

In this Jan. 13, 2021 file photo, Washington Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, works at her desk on the otherwise empty Senate floor, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., during a joint session of the Washington Legislature being held remotely. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

In 2018, Emily Randall rode a blue wave to the Washington state Senate, flipping a seat for Democrats in the 26th legislative district, which encompasses a chunk of Kitsap and Pierce counties. 

Randall’s victory is one of many that boosted Democratic House and Senate majorities in recent years and paved the way for big progressive wins in Olympia on taxes, spending, clean energy and social policies.

Now her race is one of a handful where Republicans are hoping to make inroads after years of Democratic gains across Western Washington.

Randall faces a challenge from Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, in what is likely to be the most high-profile and expensive race for the Legislature this year. The two of them together have already raised nearly $700,000 this election season.

And so two days after the Legislature finished its work in March, Randall, a Democrat from Bremerton, was already out doorbelling for reelection.

With President Donald Trump off the ballot and President Joe Biden and national Democrats facing headwinds, Randall and other incumbents are working hard to try and avoid being claimed by a potential red wave.

The midterms often favor whatever party is out of power, and research has shown the political party of the current president historically loses legislative seats in those races.

This year’s election cycle – starting with the Aug. 2 primary voting period – will test Democrats’ staying power amid the reshaped political landscape. All 98 Washington House seats are up for election, as well as 25 of 49 Senate seats. Only a few of those races will be truly competitive.

Washington’s top-two primary system – in which the two leading candidates advance to the November general election – offers a temperature check about which races and districts around the state are competitive.

There aren’t easy scenarios for the GOP to win enough seats to retake the House or Senate. But Republicans feel they have momentum amid criticism of recent laws passed by Democrats to create a long-term care benefits program and to reshape policing. They also point to voter concerns over rising consumer prices.

 “I think we’re on offense, and it's nice to be on offense,” said Washington State Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich, adding that concerns over inflation are hurting Democrats: “We’re seeing rents go through the roof, we’re seeing groceries go through the roof, we’re seeing gas prices at record highs.”

People don’t always know their state legislators, whose work often lacks the in-the-moment drama of mayors, governors and the president.

But the Washington Legislature passes laws and budgets that touch, in one way or another, everyone who lives in the state. From rising costs and reproductive health care to taxes and spending, public safety and policing, firearms regulations and housing affordability, sweeping laws are passed (or fail to pass) in Olympia.

The U.S. Supreme Court decisions overturning federal protections for abortion and ruling in favor of a Bremerton school coach’s ability to pray on the football field have energized Democratic voters, said Tina Podlodowski.

“Democrats have sort of awoken from a bit of a nap when it came to getting out there and doing this work,” said Podlodowski, the Washington State Democratic Party Chair.

Since the rulings, she added “We are inundated with volunteers and people wanting to make this work happen.”

Key Senate races

Democrats currently have a 28-21 majority in the Senate. So far it appears only a few seats could change hands.

But if Republicans picked up a couple seats, Democrats would have a harder time gathering the 25 votes within their own ranks to push through ambitious progressive legislation.

A community organizer and health care advocate who now focuses solely on her legislative job, Randall is expected to have as competitive a race as in 2018. She is touting herself as someone who gets legislation passed and can work across the aisle with Republicans.

“Over and over, I hear from neighbors why they want a reasonable representative, they’re tired of division, they’re tired of extreme rhetoric from either side of the aisle, and they want problem-solvers,” she said. “And I feel really strongly that that’s my record.”

Last year Randall passed a bill to require training on diversity, equity, inclusion and antiracism at institutions of higher education. A bill she passed this year lowers some motorist tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Randall also mentions a law she co-sponsored with GOP Senate Minority Leader John Braun and others to improve state services for individuals with developmental disabilities.  

Another of Randall’s bills made it to Inslee’s desk this spring – before he vetoed most of it. Senate Bill 5901 sought to boost development in rural Washington with a new program to defer sales and use taxes to incentivize the construction of some large warehouse construction projects. Right now, only King County has that type of tax-deferral program.

“Democratic leadership, our governor especially, is not always in touch with the needs of Washingtonians outside of King County and the I-5 corridor,” Randall said when asked about the veto.

Left: Incumbent Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton Right: Rep. Jesse Young, her Republican challenger in the upcoming race for Washington’s 26th District.

Voters in the district will have no problem finding differences between Randall and Young.

Appointed to the House in January 2014 and winning election to the seat later that year, Young has become one of the more prominent conservative Republicans in that chamber.

He helped lead a procedural effort in 2020 that stopped Democrats from approving a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines. (Lawmakers this year ultimately passed similar legislation, which was signed by Inslee.)

Young has also spoken at demonstrations at the Capitol against COVID-19 public-health restrictions. This year, he sponsored a bill – which didn’t get a public hearing, much less a vote – to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of gestational age.

“I’m pro-life, but I’m also pro-job and pro-public safety, and I’m going to focus on all of these things,” he said.

Like other Republicans, Young has focused his Senate campaign on rising costs and questions about crime. He criticized the Legislature for tightening fossil-fuel regulations and oil-transport laws in recent years that he would loosen in an effort to ease cost burdens.

“I haven’t had to budget my gas intake or how much I spent on gas since I was poor and growing up on the streets of Tacoma,” said Young, a 45-year-old software developer.

Young wants the Legislature to address the lack of a felony drug-possession law after the state Supreme Court in 2021 struck down the existing statute as unconstitutional. And he would press for lawmakers to loosen vehicle pursuits by law enforcement again, an effort that some lawmakers from both parties advocated unsuccessfully this year.

As of last week, Randall had raised $312,566 in political contributions, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Young had meanwhile raised $358,738.

Both major parties are also focusing on southeastern King County’s 47th legislative district. Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent – who in 2018 narrowly defeated GOP Sen. Joe Fain – announced earlier this year that she wouldn’t run for reelection.

Two Democrats are vying to get on the general election ballot: Claudia Kauffman, a former state lawmaker, and Satwinder Kaur, a member of the Kent City Council.

Meanwhile, Republicans are banking on William Boyce, president of the Kent City Council and a former Kent School Board member.

Boyce has so far raised $161,874, with Kaur bringing in $68,688, according to disclosure records. Kauffman has raised $29,383.

Another seat being watched closely is Whatcom’s County 42nd District, which includes swaths of rural areas along with the more progressive city of Bellingham.

Democrats in recent years have picked up the two House seats there, even as Sen. Doug Ericksen, a Ferndale Republican and a prominent Trump supporter, held off a challenger in 2018 with a win of fewer than 50 votes.

Ericksen, a longtime lawmaker, died in December from COVID-19. In January, Sen. Simon Sefzik, R-Ferndale, was appointed Ericksen’s replacement.

He’s facing a challenge from Rep. Sharon Shewmake, a Democrat from Bellingham and a Western Washington University professor first elected to the House in 2018.

While the two major political parties have a monopoly on candidates and offices, at least one notable independent is running in the primary: Chris Vance.

A former state legislator, King County Council member and chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, Vance left the GOP in protest of Donald Trump. After the 2016 election, he unsuccessfully tried to foster a centrist independent party.

Vance is challenging Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus. Fortunato has so far raised $73,373, Vance $37,836. Another independent candidate in that race, Clifford Knopik, has not reported raising any funds.

Key House races

The August primary results will gauge whether Democratic gains are holding on in areas that were highly competitive in the pre- and early-Trump presidency years.

Those places include the Issaquah area’s 5th District and the 30th District around Federal Way in King County, the Tacoma-area’s 28th District in Pierce County, and the 44th District in Snohomish County. All those House seats are now in Democratic hands, many by wide margins in recent elections.

For Republicans to capture the House, which Democrats control 57 to 41, some of those seats would almost certainly have to flip back to the GOP.

But Republicans like their chances at the two House seats in Whatcom County’s 42nd District, including the seat being vacated by Shewmake as she runs for Senate.

The Democrat considered most vulnerable this year is Rep. Dave Paul, D-Oak Harbor and director of community relations at Skagit Valley College.

Paul won election to the 10th district – which includes Island County and parts of Snohomish and Skagit counties – in 2018 and 2020, each time by fewer than 750 votes. In that latter election, the voters in the 10th District split their ticket, voting for President Joe Biden and Loren Culp, Inslee’s Republican challenger.  

Paul this year sponsored successful legislation making tweaks to Washington’s long-term care program, which has faced concerns and criticism. In an interview he touted his work boosting funding for state ferries and for a change this year that will allow high school students to take college-level classes in the summer through the Running Start program.

He wants to do more about inflation, he said, and would have preferred that Democratic leaders had acted on some ideas this year, like a proposed sales-tax holiday – which never moved forward – around the start of the school year.

Paul also wants lawmakers to expand a new tax-credit program for low-income families. Legislators talked about doing that this year before dropping the idea.

“I can’t do a lot about a Russian dictator invading Ukraine, but maybe in the next session we can talk about expanding the Working Families Tax Credit,” he said.

Paul faces a challenge by Republican Karen Lesetmoe, whose Facebook and campaign pages describe her as a real estate broker and veteran of the U.S. Navy who was born in the Philippines and came to America when she was 6 years old.

Lesetmoe couldn’t be reached for comment, but her campaign page advocates lower taxes, support for law enforcement, and limiting the executive authority for special emergencies that Gov. Jay Inslee continues to use amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Heimlich, the state Republican Party chairman, noted that Democrats this year didn’t put up candidates for one House race in the Puyallup area’s 25th District and for another House race and a Senate race in Spokane’s 6th District. Democrats had made a hard – and ultimately unsuccessful – push in recent years to win in those districts.

But Podlodowski, the Democratic Party chair, said Democrats see an opportunity to flip the other 10th District House seat. There, Rep. Greg Gilday, R-Camano – who bested a challenger in 2020 by fewer than 900 votes – faces a challenge from Democrat Clyde Shavers.

"We’re organized, we’re resolute and we’re doing the work," said Podlodowski.

CORRECTION: Randall and Young have raised $700,000 so far. That number has been corrected from a previous version of this story.

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