Jay Inslee stood before a group of reporters wearing an orange tie and a scowl. "Folks," the Democratic governor said on the morning of February 8, "the senate Republicans are out of control."
Inslee's statement—and nearly 30 minutes of even more thinly veiled rage—came after weeks of Republicans pushing extreme legislation and the last minute firing of Inslee's transportation director by Republican legislators. Republicans in Olympia have tried to restrict access to abortion, delay funding for education, and "quarantine" cities across the state from wage increases and sick time laws. That's to say nothing of their rabid attacks on trans people.
Seattle regularly sends Democratic lawmakers to the capital. But electing Seattle Democrats is not enough. In order to turn off the bigoted garbage fountain of Republican legislation (see the anti-trans bills here) and to make it easier to pass common-sense laws (see the police reform bills here), Democrats must retake the state senate.
The Republicans have a slim majority in the senate: the GOP has 25 seats, the Democrats have 24, and one "Democrat" (Tim Sheldon, Potlatch) caucuses with Republicans to effectively create a 26–23 Republican majority. Democrats must focus their energy and efforts this fall—and direct their money—to races where Democrats have a good chance of taking seats away from Republicans.
Those races are not in Seattle.
District 41, Mercer Island: Steve Litzow
At first glance, Steve Litzow doesn't seem so bad. He supported marriage equality back in 2012. He claims to be pro-choice. It's an act. In 2013, Litzow said he supported a bill requiring insurance carriers covering maternity care to also cover abortion, but then helped stop that bill from getting a vote. Litzow chairs the senate's education committee, where he has supported charter schools and helped delay action on (fucking finally) adequately funding K–12 education. Litzow tries to appear moderate, but he falls in line with the extremists in his party. No Democrat has filed to run for this seat yet, but the district could be ready for one. Sixty percent of the voters in this district chose Barack Obama in 2012, and voters in the area helped Democrat Claudia Balducci oust six-term incumbent Jane Hague from the King County Council last year.
District 28, University Place: Steve O'Ban
Steve O'Ban checks all the conservative boxes: anti-choice, anti-trans, anti-refugee. O'Ban cosponsored the senate bill that would rescind the Human Rights Commission's rule protecting trans people's right to use the bathroom. Last year, he signed a letter to the governor asking him to "pause" before accepting Syrian refugees. As a lawyer, he represented pharmacists who argued they shouldn't have to sell emergency contraception due to their religious beliefs. Democrats don't yet have a candidate to challenge O'Ban, but they better find one. In a moderate district with split party representation in the house, a Republican like O'Ban is vulnerable.
District 17, Vancouver: open seat
One of two seats where a Republican incumbent is bowing out. In District 17, outgoing Senator Don Benton won election in 2012 by just 78 votes. This year, the man who almost beat Benton—former state representative Tim Probst—filed to run again. Far-right Tea Party type Lynda Wilson, a current state representative who has backed all sorts of pro-gun/anti-choice legislation, has jumped in. The 17th is right-leaning territory, but given Probst's narrow loss last time and the enthusiasm around either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket, it could swing.
District 25, Puyallup: open seat
Democrats will need serious organizing and cash to win here. Republican senator Bruce Dammeier isn't running for reelection—he wants to be Pierce County executive instead—and the Republican who's filed for this seat, Representative Hans Zeiger, is a hard-line conservative. Just this session, he's tried to restrict trans people's access to bathrooms and rape survivors' access to abortion. Given the district's makeup, it may take a moderate Democrat to beat Zeiger. But a win here would gain Democrats a senate seat and get Zeiger the hell out of the state house.
Whether Democrats can take back control of the senate—and maintain control of the house—requires standing up to an increasingly savvy and moneyed state Republican Party.
"They know that if they take the senate and the house, they could make Jay Inslee's life as difficult as possible," says Liz Berry, the immediate past president of the National Women's Political Caucus of Washington.
Overcoming that will depend on leveraging Republicans' extreme actions this session. The Democratic platform is no longer only about what progressives would like to achieve if they had power, but about the damage done when Republicans are in control instead. That's part of why Democrats introduce progressive legislation—like increasing the minimum wage—despite knowing Republicans will block it.
"It's about making Republicans the bad guys," says Robert Cruickshank, senior campaign manager for Democracy for America. (That organization has made Washington a "priority state" in its "Purple to Blue Project," a national effort to flip state legislatures.) "Rather than saying, 'We don't think it'll pass, so we won't try for it,' [Democrats are saying,] 'We're going to fight for that, and if Republicans want to block it, they'll have to answer to voters for that.'"
It's not all on the Democratic Party apparatus, though. Progressives in Seattle—that's you—must do more than just vote in our own safely Democratic districts. This spring, once Democrats announce in all these races, Seattle progressives should invest their money and time in races in these swing districts. If you can't make it out to one of these districts, ask the campaigns about phone banks. If you're from one of these areas—if you grew up in Puyallup or Vancouver before fleeing to Seattle—talk to your family members who will be voting in that race; annoy your hometown friends on social media. There's no use spending all of your time and money sending your favorite Seattle progressive back to Olympia just to be kneecapped by a Republican majority.
Hate the anti-abortion bills Republicans introduce year after year? Hate this year's attacks on trans people? Hate that anti-tax, anti-transit, anti-labor legislators get to make laws for you? You can put a stop to it—by helping to take the state senate.