With the August primary and November general election inching closer, both Republicans and Democrats are gearing up for expensive fights in swing districts that could tip the balance of power in the state legislature. And, in a presidential cycle when a narcissist like Donald Trump, who's openly peddling racist and sexist tropes, is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Democrats in particular see the state senate as theirs for the taking.
“With the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for president, I think that you’re going to see that no Republican is safe from Trump’s down ballot disaster,” says Jamal Raad, communications director for the Washington State Democratic Party. “You’re naive if you think this won’t affect state level races.”
The senate has been in Republican control since their 2012 takeover coup when they gained a seat that year and picked up two conservative Democratic senators, Tim Sheldon (D–35, Potlatch) and Rodney Tom (D–48, Bellevue). The pair opted to caucus with Republicans that year, flipping the senate from a 26–23 Democratic majority to a de facto 25–24 GOP majority. The GOP went on to formalize their advantage. They picked up another seat in 2013's special election in the 26th Legislative District, where Republican Jan Angel won in what was then the most expensive senate race in Washington state history. The slim majority held steady through 2014 with both Democrats and Republicans gaining a seat each.
Republicans currently control the state senate with 26 to 23 advantage, counting Sheldon as a Republican. There are four races in play that could change that.
With the split control of the legislature—Democrats barely hold the house by two seats, 50-48—neither side can get much done. Last year, a bill to raise the state minimum wage to $12 an hour passed the Democratic house, but was killed in the Republican senate. Conversely, a bill passed by the Republican senate to impose legislative scrutiny on new regulations proposed by public agencies died in the Democratic house.
This election cycle, state Democrats are feeling good about their prospects for taking back the senate and even widening their majority in the house, they say.
“I think there is incredible opportunity to take back the state senate from the Republicans. We have great candidates in a few districts,” Raad says.
“It’s going to hotly contested. There’s going to plenty of money on both sides,” Alex Bond political director for the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign Committee tells me. “And a lot of these moderates and independents in these swing districts are really getting turned off by Trump. I don’t think moderate Republican or liberal Republican voters are going to be fired up to vote for Trump/Bryant ticket.” he says referring to this year's former Seattle port commissioner long shot GOP gubernatorial candidate, Bill Bryant.
There are three legislative districts (LD’s) that could go blue in November, according to the Democrats: Legislative District 41, which encompasses Mercer Island and suburban areas of King County like Bellevue, Newcastle, and Lake Sammamish; Legislative District 17, which includes Vancouver as well as a portion of broader Clark County; and Legislative District 28, a southern Puget Sound district including the cities of Tacoma, Lakewood, and Dupont. Meanwhile, a fourth LD, the 5th, made up by Renton, Issaquah, and Snoqualmie, is in play for the GOP.
Bond says that the committee plans to max out on financial contributions to its candidates in the four battle field districts.
The Republicans agree. “I don’t think it’s any shock where the senate playing field is going to be. The 5th, the 17th, the 28th, and the 41st are all contested races and both sides are going to spend prettily heavily,” Brent Ludeman, executive director of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, says.
I. The 5th Legislative District (Renton, Issaquah, Snoqualmie)
In the eastern King County swing district that’s removed from the liberal core of cities and suburbs that surround Seattle, Democrats are playing defense to hang on to a senate seat that is crucial to winning back the chamber. Incumbent, democratic senator Mark Mullet will likely face off against Republican 5th District state representaitve Chad Magendanz, , assuming Magendanz makes it through the Republican primary.
Magendanz’s campaign spins him as a moderate Republican who emphasizes low taxes, small businesses, and, above all—a popular issue with wealthier suburban Republican and Democratic voters alike, education reform—promoting charter schools, teacher performance pay, and slamming the standard Democratic talking point of more revenue to fund public K-12 education. Magendanz is a former navy officer and Microsoft employee. And his rhetoric and his record of bill sponsorship (which focus on education) don’t scream Tea Party (despite the fact that Magendanz was a proud founder of the Issaquah–Sammamish Tea Party).
Mullet managed to wring out highway and road improvement projects for the 5th from last year’s senate transit package (a package Magendanz voted against.) But with Magendanz’s even-keeled talking points, it’s easy to imagine why Democrats are worried.
“The 5th is our toughest hold,” state senator Jamie Pedersen (D–43, Capitol Hill) says. Pedersen, a state senator since 2014 and legislator since 2007, serves as a co-chair on the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee alongside Mullet and other ranking caucus members.
Bond pointed to Mullet's support from education reform interest groups that Magendanz’s platform is courting. The League of Education voters endorsed Mullet, and their political action committee has donated to his campaign, as has the Washington State Charter School Association's political arm, the Washington Charters PAC. (Mullet has also raised around $50,000 more than any of the Republican primary contenders, including Magendanz.) Mullet joined the Republicans and voted for last session's bill to bring 2012's voter-approved charter measure in sync with the state constitution.
As for his voting record, Magendanz has a few skeletons in the closet. There’s his vote against the Equal Opportunity Act and his nay vote for the Washington State Dream Act, the latter of which would play right into the Democrats' Trump ticket narrative in a district where cities like Issaquah and Renton are growing and becoming increasingly diverse. “That’s the kind of anti-immigrant politics that aren’t going to play well especially with Trump at the top of the ticket,” Bond says.
“There’s been more and more development [happening out there,” says Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington Labor Council, a liberal labor interest group that has endorsed Mullet despite some qualms with his labor voting record. (Education reform demonizes teachers unions.) “It’s definitely a bedroom community of Seattle and Bellevue and I think there’s more folks who work in the high tech sector who have moved out there and identify more Democratic than Republican.”
II. The 28th (Tacoma, Lakewood, Dupont)
But a win in the 5th is bare minimum for Democrats if they hope to take back the senate. “Assuming [the Democrats hold the 5th] we need to win at least two of the other races,” Pedersen says.
In the 28th, Democratic candidate and political newbie Marisa Peloquin is taking on Republican incumbent senator Steve O’Ban, who has represented the district since 2013; he originally served in the house before he was appointed to his senate seat when his predecessor, Mike Carrell, died in office. And O'Ban withstood a challenge from former longtime Democratic Tacoma rep and Democratic leader Tami Green in 2014.
The 28th is a working class, socially moderate-to-conservative district with a split representation in the state legislature (Senator O’Ban and incumbent representative Dick Muri hail from the GOP and representative Christine Kilduff is a Democrat.) The district has concentration of military personnel and military families from Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), and values veteran services, public safety, and schools. These were all themes that O’Ban stuck to during his 2012 campaign for one of the 28th district house seats and 2014 re-election bid for his senate seat. But Democrats say they can oust O’Ban.
Peloquin is an immigrant from Taiwan, a veteran of the U.S. 82nd airborne division and standing member of the Army Reserve, and Parent Teacher Association volunteer with a Masters in Business Administration.
She’s a newbie to politics, but Bond says: “It’s a huge military and veteran community. Folks are very interested in the military service aspect. She’s our top door beller right now and when she’s going out to folks and talking to people they’re are saying ‘I usually vote Republican,’ but then she talks about her biography and they say ‘oh, I’ll vote for you’,” says Bond. “In the 28th we’re running against a incumbent," he acknowledges, "and that’s always tougher.”
Bond points to O’Ban’s recent record of voting for the failed senate Republican bill to abolish legal bathroom usage protections for transgender individuals in Washington, his focus on the state department of correction’s debacle, and his staff lawyer position with the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Christian religious liberties legal group that challenged Washington state law that pharmacies distribute emergency contraception.
The pro-choice lobbying group NARAL has prioritized defeating O’Ban. After this week’s U.S. supreme court decision upheld Washington’s pharmacy rules against the complaint from religious pharmacists at Storman's (netting the sharp headline “It’s a drugstore not a church” ), NARAL director NARAL director Rachel Berkson told PubliCola: “With this case finally laid to rest, it’s worth remembering that state senator Steve O’Ban has been determined to limit women’s access to contraception every step of the way. As the attorney for Stormans, he stood by religious pharmacists who wanted their personal beliefs to trump women’s right to access birth control. And as a state legislator, he’s opposed efforts to require insurance coverage for abortion and sought to require parental notification for minors to access abortion services. It’s time for senator O’Ban to answer for his efforts to uphold a policy that has now been rejected by the courts at every level.”
O'Ban has also been a light rail skeptic and critic (sponsoring a bill to make ST board members directly elected.) It's unclear how that will play out this season with a light rail measure on that ballot that proposes bringing light rial to Tacoma, but O'Ban has not been enthusiastic about the project.
Republicans say the Democrats' depiction of O’Ban’s is inaccurate. Moreover, they say Peloquin is a political newbie whose military background is basically the extent of her substance as a candidate.
“[Peloquin] is a first time candidate. She looks okay on paper, she was in the army reserve, but when you get past that there’s not much to bring to the public,” Republican Ludeman tells me. “She’s not a particularly dynamic campaigner and half of her contributions come from the senate Democrat caucus.”
Ludeman points to O’Ban’s efforts to include $450 million for I-5 congestion relief near JBLM in the 2015 senate transportation spending package, as well as his support of Governor Jay Inslee’s Homeless Youth and Protection Act. “Steve O'Ban is one of the hardest working and most prolific legislators in recent memory,” Ludeman says.
On contributions, Ludeman is somewhat accurate. Peloquin is being partially bankrolled by a $10,000 contribution from the Senate Democratic Campaign committee (she has raised a little over $37,000). The rest of her money comes from $250 (or less) donations as well as a handful of $1,000 contributions from various labor unions and the Kennedy Fund, a Political Action Committee (PAC) which senate Democrat races. O’Ban, by contrast, is loaded, having raised over $157,000 from business industry interests like CenturyLink, the Washington Restaurant Association, and the NRA.
III. The 17th (Vancouver, Clark County)
In recent years, this district has voted red, sending Republicans to both the house and senate. The Democrats are fielding Tim Probst, former state representative for the 17th and a previous candidate for the district senate seat back in 2012 when he lost by a narrow margin—only 17 votes—to former long-time and noisy Republican senator Don Benton. (Earlier this year, Benton announced he would not seek re-election due to scheduling conflicts with his other, higher paying job as Director of Clark County Environmental Services).
The GOP is putting up current state representative and successful cabinet manufacturing business woman Lynda Wilson; Wilson is the former chair of the Clark County Republicans.
For starters, the Democrats also hope to play off the alleged unpopularity of outgoing senator Benton, who they say represents the declining state Republican brand of uncompromising, ideologically extreme partisanship. Benton’s track record includes sponsoring bills to require parental notification before a minor gets an abortion, preventing undocumented immigrants from receiving in-state tuition and financial aid, and lifting the law requiring adults to wear helmets while riding motorcycles. He also sponsored a Tea Party-inspired anti-Growth Management Act bill about the U.N.’s agenda to promote sustainable development.
Wilson’s senate campaign website hits standard Republican themes: fund education without increasing taxes, enact a two-thirds majority vote rule in the legislature to increase tax revenue, more charter schools, slash funding for mass transit, and protect gun rights. (She sent a letter to governor Jay Inslee protesting gun-free zones at military bases.) Bills and resolutions that she’s sponsored in the house include: repealing transgender bathroom usage protections, two classic anti-choice bills (one declaring that life begins and conception and another requiring parental notification), a Washington State Patrol rape kit tracking system, and amending the state constitution to require the two-thirds rule. She was former chairwoman of regional tea party-leaning group “We the People,” and advocated for armed protection personnel in Vancouver schools.
Democrats say Probst’s strong showing against Benton in 2012, his winning re-election campaigns to the state house, and his moderate leanings make him viable in the 17th. Bond also points to some crossover appeal in the GOP-leaning turf— Probst’s good scorecard on from the Freedom Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank emphasizing fiscal responsibility, free enterprise, and individual rights.
Republicans, naturally, don’t buy it. “If he [Probst] couldn’t beat Benton four years ago he’s going to have a much more difficult time this time around,” says Ludeman. “It’s a Republican district.”
And Republicans slam Probst as a career politician, pointing to the six-figure salary position he obtained at the Employment Security Department following his losing bid against Benton in 2012. They also point to his violation of Public Disclosure Commission rules for failing to file his personal financial disclosure on time.
Probst has raised slightly more than Wilson at this point: Probst has raised $145,000 compared to Wilson’s $116,000, with most of his war chest coming from unions. Wilson’s money comes from almost entirely business interests, including the NRA.
IV. The 41st (Mercer Island, Bellevue, Sammamish)
With the steady growth and metro urbanization (Bellevue was among the fastest growing cities in King County in 2015), Democrats are betting they can retake the district’s senate seat away from Republican incumbent Steve Litzow. It’s a district that covers swaths of high-income, socially liberal voters (think Bellevue and Mercer Island) who aren’t enthralled about higher taxes, but also recognize the need for new revenue to fund K-12 education and other public services. In addition, the district is getting more diverse, along with the rest of King County. The district abandoned Trump in the GOP primary.
Incumbent Litzow is a moderate (compared to other members of his party in the legislature) who was voted in back in 2011, ousting his Democratic predecessor. He voted for Washington’s same sex marriage initiative in 2012, voted against the senate Republican push to strip away transgender bathroom protections, and has been an advocate for charter schools as well as finding funding—without raising taxes—for public education. Litzow did come under fire from NARAL Pro-Choice Washington for shutting down a bill that would have required health insurance policies sold in the state that cover maternity care to cover abortions as well. His challenger is Lisa Wellman, a first time candidate with a business background. She is the current Managing Director Nsquared Solutions Software development company and was a mentor at the MBA program at the UW Foster School of Business. She also serves on Washington State Public Works Board.
Democrats say the voting demographics are on Wellman's side, pointing to last year’s race for the King County council Sixth District that overlaps LD 41. Claudia Balducci—former mayor of Bellevue, an out and proud Democrat and light rail champion cleaned up with fifty-nine percent of the vote, besting six-term moderate Republican incumbent Jane Hague.
“The 41st is the best on paper for Democrats,” says longtime Democratic political consultant Christian Sinderman who's working on several state legislative campaigns.
The Republicans maintain that Litzow is a solid fit for the 41st. “Litzow has done a great job of representing that district which is socially moderate and fiscal conservative,” says the Senate Republican Campaign Committee head Ludeman. “He’s very in touch with social liberals but also does a great job on controlling spending and taxes,” Ludeman added, pointing to Litzow’s vote against the failed push to repeal transgender bathroom usage protections, where he split with the majority of the Republican caucus.
This could be a race, though, where the Trump factor is lethal for the GOP. Litzow has already disavowed the presumptive Republican nominee and said he won’t endorse him.
“Steve Litzow might try to run as far as he can away from Donald Trump, but he’s aligned himself with a party that supports that agenda,” says Pedersen.
Republicans hope voters will differentiate between their controversial nominee and Litzow. “I don’t buy that narrative,” says Ludeman. “If you look at the state Republican party platform, he doesn’t always agree with [it]. He has his own unique beliefs, and that’s sort of representative of our caucus as a whole.”
“It’s not about what is happening at the national level and it’s not about what’s necessarily happening at the state level. It’s about who they are and the districts they are running in,” he added, noting that local Republicans did well in the 2012 election cycle, when Barack Obama swept nationally.
But Democrats point to the Obama factor too, saying it backs up their anti-Trump strategy in the 41st. “They’ve [Republicans] absolutely tried to nationalize elections,” argued Sinderman. “Republicans don’t mind having a Democrat in the White House like Obama that they can blame for everything, and that’s why they’ve made huge gains in the legislature in recent years—by blaming Obama for everything.”
Local political consultant Ben Anderstone agrees that Trump looms large for the GOP in the 41st.
“There are two factors pushing and pulling at each other: The brand for national Republicans and the brand for local Republicans,” political analyst Ben Anderstone told me via email. He notes that local Republicans are "seen as more concerned about fiscal issues and tax bills than the culture wars. That's how the party manages to hold on to suburban seats. This isn’t an uphill climb. The Republicans have done it before. This time, [though], they're just doing it with an unwanted sack of potatoes strapped to their backs,” he concluded.
Assuming Democrats hold the 5th district senate seat and take at least two of the other districts, they’d hold a majority of 25–24. Previous failed efforts to close corporate tax loopholes, for example, to pay for K-12 public teacher salaries—the remaining unsolved element of the Washington State Supreme Court’s mandate to the legislature to fully fund public education—could stand a chance of passing.
V. Irony Alert
While Democrats talk up their chances in senate races, their slim two-seat margin (two seats) in the house looms. Democrats say they have good standing to maintain or expand their majority by winning new districts (even if they lose some). But the Democratic push to fill Magendanz’s former state house seat in the 5th LD features Darcy Burner, three time failed candidate for the 8th Congressional District, the corresponding U.S. house district. Burner is an outspoken progressive in this fairly conservative turf. Burner has raised more money than her more conservative Democratic primary challenger, Matt Larson, and scored endorsements from the likes of the 5th LD Democrats and the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington. But given her track record in previous elections and the voting history of the district, Burner is a risky bet for this house seat. (In 2012, Kirby Wilbur, former chair of the Washington State GOP, actively cheered Burner on in the Democratic primary for the 8th district.)
Nonetheless, Democrats are forever on-message about pinning local Republicans with Trump. “This is something where the Republicans are talking a very big talk on the house. They are just trying to pretend that Donald Trump and his down-ballot effect don’t exist,” says Raad.