As voters begin to fill out their ballots across the state, Washington’s Democrats are singing a much more optimistic tune than they were before the August primaries.

It’s not just singing, either. The major state Democratic and Republican PACs are spending the vast majority of their campaign cash on just a handful of districts. Even if Republican candidates win the races where they’re spending the most, it won’t be enough to dislodge the Democratic triumvirate in Olympia.  

But that doesn’t mean November’s election will be a total snooze-fest. In the final days of voting, the remaining battleground districts have drawn hundreds of thousands of dollars in ad spending from independent expenditures associated with each party. 

While they might not decide who controls Olympia, the results of those contests will shape the conventional wisdom about voter appetite for progressive policy as Democrats consider how aggressively to pursue taxes on the uber-wealthy, whether to fully fund special education, and how to make living in this state affordable for everybody. In King County’s lone remaining swing district, those arguments are playing out in what’s shaping up to be a nail-biter of a state Senate race.

Senate Battleground Map Shrinks

Senate Democrats are looking to hold Gig Harbor's 26th district, Whatcom County's 42nd district, and Kent's 47th district. WA State Redistricting Commission

Seattle state Senator Jamie Pedersen chairs the committee responsible for keeping his chamber in Democratic hands. In an interview, he said his organization is focused on three priority districts: the 26th in Gig Harbor, the 42nd in Whatcom County, and the 47th in Kent. 

When asked to reconcile that narrow focus with his doomsday predictions earlier this year, Pedersen argued that the Republicans shot themselves in the foot by blowing a bunch of money opposing Democrats in safe seats during the primary. He called the GOP’s decision to spend $320,000 against Senator Manka Dhingra, who represents Redmond and Kirkland in the 45th Legislative District, “kind of stunning” given her substantial lead coming out of the primary. 

His concern now seems fixed on those three priority districts. However, a look at spending from the main independent expenditure group for Democrats, New Direction PAC, shows two of those three districts rank much higher up on the list so far. 

In the districts representing Gig Harbor and Whatcom County, the PAC has paid for additional canvassers, campaign mailers, digital ads, TV ads, and robocalls to get out the vote for their Democratic candidates. But in South King County’s 47th Legislative District, Pedersen’s claim that the Senate Democrats are “doing everything we can” to make sure Stranger-endorsed Claudia Kauffman prevails remains questionable. 

Until this week, New Direction PAC had paid for just one mailer. But after GOP outside groups and their allied business interests spent more than $230,000 in TV ads and more than $115,000 in digital ads in the race, New Direction PAC dropped $50,000 on digital ads against Kauffman’s opponent. 

There’s still plenty of time for the Dems to play catch-up in paid advertising, however, and it’s not as if the early spending in the primary paid off for the Republicans. Washington state campaign finance laws require PACs to report new spending this close to the election every 24 hours, so by the time you’re reading this it’s possible the Democratic PAC has done more to counterbalance the GOP’s outside spending in that race.

House Democrats Go On Offense

House Democrats hope to pick up seats in Oak Harbor's 10th district, Gig Harbor's 26th district, and southwest Washington's 18th district. WA Redistricting Commission

In an interview, Pedersen’s counterpart in the State House, Representative Joe Fitzgibbon, expressed a similar level of optimism about his party’s likelihood of retaining control of his chamber. 

He noted that Democratic candidates came out of the primary “in good shape” in every district where they were playing defense, with the sole exception of the races in Whatcom County’s 42nd district. 

After seeing those mostly encouraging primary results, Fitzgibbon could barely contain his glee at the prospect of growing the Democratic House majority in a purportedly red-wave year. In particular, the GOP’s failure to place a candidate in an open State House seat in the 47th district freed up several hundred thousand dollars for Democrats in races elsewhere. 

Fitzgibbon identified the 10th district, which covers Oak Harbor, and the 26th district in Gig Harbor as the most likely Democratic pick-ups. He also called out the 18th district races in the Vancouver suburbs as possible opportunities to flip Republican-held seats after some short-sighted GOP bargaining in redistricting made that district more competitive.

New Direction PAC’s spending matches those priorities. They’re investing in paid canvassers, mailers, and robocalls to help boost Democratic performance in the 10th district, and they’re including Democratic House candidates in their advertising in the 26th. The PAC is even paying for some mailers to try to tip the scales towards Democratic candidate John Zingale in the open House race in the 18th district, which Republicans have held for more than a decade.

Grassroots Groups Fill the Gap in King County’s Only Swing District

Washington Bus and Working Families Party volunteers ready to canvass for Kauffman WC

Closer to Seattle, the only truly close race is the Senate contest between Claudia Kauffman and Kent City Council Member Bill Boyce in the 47th district. 

Crystal Fincher, a local political consultant working for New Direction PAC in the race, expects the race to tighten from the combined nine-point advantage the two Democratic candidates enjoyed over Boyce in the primary, she said in an interview.

With thousands of new voters tuning in for the general election who didn’t vote in the primary, Fincher said Kauffman’s supporters are engaging in a “full-court press” to inform those people that there’s even an election happening at all. 

If the reaction from the crowd at a recent Kauffman campaign fundraiser was any indication, voters who hear the pitch she used that night will come away with a compelling first impression of the former state Senator. 

In her plea for money to keep her TV ad on the air, Kauffman gave an impassioned speech about how her experiences as a mother to a daughter with Down syndrome and a foster mother to 10 teenage girls drove her into public service to help give every child in her community a chance at a fulfilling life.

Against the backdrop of recent teacher strikes that centered on managing class sizes for students with special needs, Kauffman’s story of supporting her daughter through a recent transition to an adult family home where she’s found a supportive community of friends drew applause from the crowd.

Boyce’s own compelling narrative makes him a formidable opponent, even before you consider the $140,000 he’s got on hand to supplement the PAC advertising from his GOP allies. As a product of North Carolina’s segregated school system, he touts his personal triumph over those systems of oppression and downplays his Republican ties in favor of his local elected experience on the Kent School Board. 

With scant local media coverage of the race since the primary, door-to-door canvassing is the only method Kauffman has to break through the glossy veneer Boyce presents in his ads. Without the paid canvassers New Direction PAC has hired in other swing districts, local grassroots groups allied with Kauffman’s campaign have worked to fill that gap.

Luckily for Kauffman, those allies have come in strong to urge voters to, as Kauffman said at her recent fundraiser, “drop those ballots like they’re hot.” 

A few weekends ago, the Washington Bus and the Working Families Party turned out nearly two dozen volunteers to get the word out, even with a Mariners playoff game tempting people to stay home on their couches. Kauffman’s allies in organized labor have also shown up in force to remind people that Boyce’s policies will only make it harder for them to make ends meet. This weekend, the King County Democrats are recruiting volunteers from across the county to pitch in as well. 

We’ll know in less than two weeks if all that pavement pounding pays off for Kauffman. If she can pull off a victory while advocating for progressive revenue, fully funding special education, and repealing the statewide ban on rent control in a suburban swing district, then it will give mushy moderates in Olympia one less excuse for not delivering on those long-overdue policies.