As this year's short legislative session hurtles toward a close on March 9, and both parties begin to tally up their victories and defeats, Republicans are hyping one issue that allows them to win even when they lose. It's the issue they began hammering away at on day one of this election-year session: sex offenders.

When GOP lawmakers called for a vote on their harsh "lock 'em up and throw away the key" proposals on the very first day of the session, there was a shrewd political strategy behind the stunt. The Republicans of course lost their request for a vote, and for sensible reasons (few lawmakers had even read the proposed sex-offender legislation on day one). But the loss only provided ammunition for a Republican political action committee that two weeks later sent out mailers criticizing Democrats, who control both houses of the state legislature, for being soft on sex crimes.

The affair, which brought howls of protest from Democrats, was a perfect illustration of why Republicans like the sex-offender issue and why, as the end of the session approaches, they're now making a point of putting sex-offender legislation high on their list of losses—and wins.

State Senator Pam Roach (R-Enumclaw), who backed a harsh sex-offender bill that got nowhere this year, says she would welcome a discussion of sex offenders in her upcoming race for reelection. "I'd like to see an opponent decide I wasn't right on sex offenders," Roach says. "What are they going to say?"

For this reason, expect to hear a lot from Republicans this fall about how they voted for bills that make it harder to be a sex offender in this state, and how Democrats blocked bills that would have made it harder to be a sex offender in this state. See how that works? In this Year of the Sex Offender, with some 30 sex-offender-related bills likely to be passed by the end of session, and more than a dozen others not having made it past last week's cutoff to get bills out of committee, Republicans clearly have the easier spin job. They will cast any defeated bills as a failure of toughness on the part of Democrats, leaving Democrats to do the more complicated work of explaining to the public why some harsh bills would have been counterproductive, even if they sounded good.

The question is whether any of this will matter, come November. Democrats do have plenty of sex-offender material to use in their favor: They introduced 25 of the 30 sex-offender bills that seem likely to become law this year, and they have had prosecutors and victim advocates on their side as they try to keep some flexibility in sex-offender sentencing guidelines rather than going for the Republicans' one-long-sentence-fits-all-bad-guys approach. (Plus, to highlight how Republicans have politicized this issue, they seem likely to pass a bill that would outlaw mailers like the ones Republicans used earlier this year for their political stunt—mailers that were made to look like sex-offender notices.)

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D-Spokane) thinks Democrats can convince the public that they aren't in favor of cutting sex offenders any slack, even if they did refuse to support the Republicans' "Jessica's Law Plus," which would have mandated minimum 30-year sentences for violent sex offenders and was named for a 9-year-old Florida girl whose abuse and killing became a national sensation.

Experts have supported the Democrats' more flexible approach, pointing out that in the 92 percent of sex crimes where the victim knows the perpetrator, victims can be very reluctant to testify if they know a conviction will lead to a long mandatory sentence. That's why the Democrats' more flexible sentencing guidelines will actually lead to more convictions than the Republican approach, according to the experts.

"[The experts] are all on board with the legislation that we passed," Brown says, "and they all agree that a high minimum sentence doesn't work if it means that you don't get convictions. So I think we stand by our approach, which creates some flexibility in sentencing, and particularly in the case in which the victim is known to the perpetrator."

As for the political fallout, Christian Sinderman, a Democratic political consultant who will be advising a number a Democratic legislators in their campaigns for reelection this fall, is already trying out a talking point that shoves the "soft on sex offenders" charge right back in Republicans' faces.

"Sex offenders was a loss for the Republicans," Sinderman says. "It was a loss because they initially pushed a bill that would have resulted in fewer prosecutions and more exposure of victims to their abusers."