Late Republican ballots thwart Democratic gains in WA Legislature

Several races where Democrats led on election night have since flipped to the GOP, leaving the overall balance of power in Olympia unchanged.

J.T. Wilcox, House Republican leader in the Washington State House

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, looked as if he might lose a couple of House seats in early results from the Nov. 3 election. But late ballots trended Republican to a degree he said he's never seen, erasing Democratic candidates' leads in key races. Now each party will have the same number of seats in the Legislature as before. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Democrats were optimistic that they would pick up at least a seat or two in Washington's Legislature, based on early results on election night. Then, as sometimes happens in Washington’s vote-by-mail elections, things changed.

Late ballots skewed Republican to an unusual degree, zeroing out the gains Democrats initially thought they might have made.

While some state legislative seats changed from Republican to Democratic hands and vice versa, the final result is that Democrats will now have the same majorities in Olympia as they had before. 

Democrats will maintain their 57-41 majority in the state House and their 28-21 majority in the state Senate. A conservative Democrat who caucuses with Republicans is counted among Republicans in those numbers. 

Democrats’ failure to pick up new seats could complicate their plans to pursue some progressive policies that they have had trouble passing in recent years. Those include a clean fuel standard to require cleaner gasoline for cars and trucks, as well as a tax on capital gains (such as profits from selling stocks and bonds).

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said he has never seen such a hard right shift in late ballot counts. 

Especially after additional votes were counted in state legislative races, Wilcox said, “Senate and House Republicans way outperformed the top of the ticket, compared to the governor and the presidential race.”  

In Washington state, President Donald Trump got less than 39% of the vote, while Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp garnered 43%. Their numbers also started out worse on election night and inched upward later. 

Wilcox attributed the late GOP swing mostly to Democrats voting earlier this year.

Crystal Fincher, a political consultant who works with Democrats, agreed. She said Democratic voters felt much more anxiety than Republicans about how operational changes at the U.S. Postal Service could slow the delivery of their mail-in ballots this year. 

Many Democrats also were motivated to get their ballots in earlier to help ensure a more complete count on election night to try to avoid confusion and fighting about who won the presidential race, she said. That was an especially big concern during this year’s pandemic, as more states turned to mail-in ballots, which can take longer to count, and as the president questioned whether any votes should be counted past Election Day. 

In the end, many Washington Democrats took their ballots to a drop box, a more direct delivery method, to bypass the Postal Service entirely, Fincher said. 

“That was going to get the Democratic vote counted much earlier than the Republican vote,” Fincher said.

Now, three seats that had looked like potential Democratic pickups in the early days of vote counting will remain in Republican hands.

Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, eventually overtook Democratic challenger Tanisha Harris in Clark County’s 17th Legislative District.

Meanwhile, in the 10th Legislative District, Republican Greg Gilday pulled ahead of Democrat Angie Homola to win an open state House seat. The 10th District includes Island County and parts of Snohomish and Skagit counties.

Democrats had hoped to win a Senate seat in that same district. But after more ballots were counted, Democrat Helen Price Johnson fell behind Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor. Muzzall, who was appointed to the Senate last year to fill a vacancy, now will keep his seat.

State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, who chairs the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign, said he still thinks some changes to the makeup of the Senate will make it easier to pass certain bills that have stalled in the past..

Although Democrats’ overall majorities will stay the same, one of the Senate’s more conservative Democrats, Dean Takko, lost his seat in southwest Washington to a Republican. Meanwhile, a more progressive Democrat, T’wina Nobles, won her race, flipping a Republican seat in Pierce County’s 28th Legislative District to Democratic control.

While Takko has been reluctant to pass tax measures in the past, Nobles has said she is interested in enacting a capital gains tax on the wealthy. 

Takko also wasn’t willing to support most gun-control measures, such as a ban on high-capacity magazines, said Pedersen, who chairs the Senate committee that considers gun legislation.

Pedersen said Nobles’ arrival in the Senate could make a difference in passing the high-capacity magazine ban, as well as other legislation that has been difficult to get through the Senate.

“I think there is probably very little question that there are some things that were on the bubble that will be possible with Sen. Nobles … that would not have been possible with Sen. Takko,” Pedersen said. 

Another centrist Democrat, state Sen. Mark Mullet of Issaquah, is fending off a challenge from the left in a race that may be headed toward a recount. Democratic challenger Ingrid Anderson was leading at first, but Mullet later pulled ahead and now has an 85-vote lead.

In the House, Democrats lost the seat held by state Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen. who is Takko’s seatmate in southwest Washington’s 19th Legislative District. Blake will be replaced by Republican Joel McEntire. 

Wilcox, the House Republican leader, said this year’s results make it clear that Democrats have lost that district for good, eliminating one of Democrats’ last footholds outside the Puget Sound region. 

But the loss of Blake was balanced out by Democrats’ gaining a seat further north, in Whatcom County’s 42nd Legislative District. There, Democrat Alicia Rule unseated Republican state Rep. Luanne Van Werven, R-Lynden.

State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, who chairs the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said he still sees this year’s election as a sign that voters are happy with Democratic majorities at the state Capitol. Even though Democrats didn’t gain seats, they also didn’t lose any, even after passing bills that increased taxes and imposed new environmental regulations on businesses, for example.

“There was no backlash to tax increases, there was no backlash to sex education legislation, there was no backlash to climate change action,” said Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle. “What it looks like to me is an endorsement of our strong majority in both chambers.”

Republican Wilcox had a slightly different take, particularly when taking into account the national picture. Across the country, Democrats failed to flip any state Legislatures to their control this year. They also lost seats in Congress, despite winning the presidency.

“I think we saw a lot of people who were not necessarily interested in empowering Democrats — but they did want a different president,” Wilcox said.

About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is Crosscut’s staff reporter covering state politics and the Legislature.