Dems are playing defense in five districts around the state, and potentially ten depending on how crazy stuff gets.
State Dems are playing defense against Republicans in five legislative districts around the state, and potentially ten depending on how crazy stuff gets. Screenshot from the Redistricting Commission

Washington state Democrats currently enjoy a 16-seat majority in the House and a seven-seat majority in the Senate, but those numbers will very likely change come November.

Looking at polls and voting patterns, Democratic politicians and political analysts see a spectrum of possible outcomes in 2022, running from Modest Shrinkage on one end to Red Wave Armageddon on the other. The best-case scenario for Democrats would see them gaining a seat in both chambers, and the worst-case scenario would leave Dems down by double digits in the House with the narrowest of majorities in the Senate.

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With a few notable differences, analysts mostly agree on the reasons the Dems will lose seats, and they also mostly agree on the locations of the toughest battlefields. But the question of severity depends on whether people think Washington will buck national trends or go right along with them.

The schools of thought

Seattle state Senator Jamie Pedersen, who will likely face a primary challenger from the left this year, chairs the organization responsible for holding his chamber's Democratic majority. Talking to him about Democratic prospects in 2022 is like talking to a thundercloud.

He sees darkness on the horizon: Democrats control the Presidency and nominally control Congress, and many Americans say the country is on the wrong track. Aggregate generic congressional vote polling favors Republicans by three points, suggesting that perhaps progressive consternation for Joe Manchin doesn't account for all of the anger out there.

The last two times Dems held the Presidency and both chambers in Congress during the midterms, Washington Dems fared poorly. In 2010, House Dems lost seven seats, and the Senate lost four. And of course, in the bloodbath of 1994, House Dems lost 26 seats, flipping from a 66-32 majority to a 40-58 minority.

Complicating matters further: Those losses happened on familiar turf, but this year Washington's bipartisan redistricting commission drew up new political boundaries in chaotic and potentially illegal circumstances. The new maps, which face legal challenges from the left and the right, introduce a lot of uncertainty about how the party will perform around the state.

Moreover, Pedersen argues, Democratic performance dropped by 5% across the board in the Virginia and New Jersey elections last November. If that trend holds in Washington, then many "safe" seats could quickly become nail-biters. In this kind of environment, he warned, voter desire to punish the people in charge can limit the value of incumbency in swing districts.

Overall, Pedersen thinks Democrats will only lose one or two Senate seats, but he thinks a ~5% drop in Dem performance statewide could spell doom for the majority in the House.

Seattle House Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, who likely will not face a serious challenge from the left this year, chairs the organization responsible for holding his chamber's Democratic majority. He paints a more optimistic picture than Pedersen does.

"I think historical precedent would suggest smaller majorities in both chambers, but I don't think we’ll lose the majority in either chamber," he said in a phone interview.

He argues that Washington voters don't swing as widely as voters in Virginia and New Jersey, and that you see more elasticity in odd years than in even years. "Between 2008 and 2010 the average drop in Dem performance was double digits, and we came out of that election only down seven seats," he says.

He adds that movement toward Republicans remains heavily concentrated in places with lower educational attainment. Though Dems will likely continue to lose voters in rural parts of the state over the longterm, Washington's suburban swing districts are "unusually well-educated," and so they're likely to be less swingy.

Finally, U.S. Senator Patty Murray is running strong at the top of the ticket, which should help down-ballot.

The battlegrounds

First off, a major caveat: It's very early. With the candidate filing deadline scheduled for mid-May, it's unclear who's in and who's out of many of these races. The state of the economy, Ukraine, Biden's health, Justice Clarence Thomas's health, or the status of anything four months from now is even less clear. Nevertheless, it's useful to establish a nice baseline of anxieties, fears, hopes, or cautious optimisms at the outset of an election cycle. So let's begin!

Republicans need to win nine House seats and four Senate seats to take over the Legislature. Looking at the Biden/Trump vote share across the state's 49 Legislative Districts offers a pretty good idea of where Democrats must defend seats and where they can go on offense. Ben Anderstone, one of the founders of consulting firm Progressive Strategies NW, sent me his breakdown of those numbers, and they suggest ten districts where a 5-point drop in overall Dem performance could make for some close races.

Pedersen's doom and gloom scenario included potential losses in all of these districts, but the real concern mostly centers on the seats in the first five I'll mention.

• The 26th Legislative District

Everyone agrees that the 26th LD presents Democrats with their biggest challenge. The district, which covers Gig Harbor, voted for Biden by less than a point, and in 2018 incumbent state Senator Emily Randall beat an establishment Republican by a little more than 100 votes. Two members of the GOP occupy the district's House seats, and one of them, Jesse Young, is taking on Randall.

Young is a real peach. During his time in office, he's racked up a couple ethics violations, and he has also lost staff privileges for a year after his own aides accused him of blowing up at them. When he's not celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day by talking about getting beat up by Black guys, he and his well-armed buddies like to spend their time counter-protesting teens at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. But he won his last race by six points, and he may be tough to beat. Randall maintains strong connections with the district, she's a smart and savvy politician, and she's got a good record on health care and transportation stuff that matters to the spectrum of political beliefs out there, so she definitely has a fighting chance.

• The 10th Legislative District

House Rep. Dave Paul will also face a tough battle against any reasonable-sounding Republican who comes at him up in the 10th LD, which includes Oak Harbor and Mt. Vernon. He only won his last race by a point, and the other two politicians who represent the district in the State House run with the GOP. Biden only won the district 50 to 48, so this one will be difficult.

• The 42nd Legislative District

The 42nd LD, which covers Whatcom County, presents a pick-up opportunity for Democrats. Current Democratic House Rep. Sharon Shewmake will run for the state Senate seat that opened up after longtime incumbent Republican state Senator Doug Ericksen died after getting COVID-19. Two Republicans — Whatcom County Councilmember Ben Elenbaas and current (and very young) fill-in state Sen. Simon Sefzik — will likely beat each other up in the primary on the way to facing her in the general, all of which will be fun to watch.

Shewmake's Senate run leaves one House seat open, and Democratic House Rep. Alicia Rule will need to defend the other one. Rule won her seat by two points when Trump was at the top of the ticket, so holding onto that seat might prove difficult. Biden won the district by six points, and Pedersen said redistricting didn't do much to help Dems here, so a bad year could make the race real close. Rule's robust record of voting against progressive bills, however, might help her win over some moderates.

• The 24th Legislative District

Trump's GOP seems to be gaining ground in the rural areas, and there's plenty of rural areas in the 24th LD, which covers the peninsula. At the moment, it looks like Democratic House Reps. Mike Chapman and Steve Tharinger will square off against two candidates they each beat in the last cycle, and it's a Biden +9 district, but Republican House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox said on Twitter that the GOP campaigns will be better funded this year, and he seemed optimistic about the fight.

• The 44th Legislative District

The Senate race to fill Steve Hobbs's old seat in Snohomish's 44th LD will feature Sen. John Lovick, who ascended from the House by appointment, plus whichever Republican wants to go against a former State Trooper riding high off the passage of his pickleball bill. Lovick's run for higher office leaves his seat open, and Democratic House Rep. April Berg, who won her first term by four points, will defend the other. Biden won by 14 points here, but Inslee under-ran Biden, and, again, if Dems see a 5-point drop across the board, then suddenly the 44th could turn. On the other hand, Fitzgibbon said the redistricting process added three points to Dem performance in the 44th, so it'd take a mighty big drop for the Dems to lose here.

• The 5th Legislative District

Okay, now we're entering into overly cautious territory, but it's territory worth exploring. Up until a few years ago, the GOP held the two House seats in the 5th LD, which covers the Issaquah and Snoqualmie areas. Biden very comfortably took the district with 57% of the vote in 2020, and no one has filed yet to run against incumbent Democratic Reps. Bill Ramos and Lisa Callan, but, who knows, maybe shit could get weird.

• The 47th Legislative District

Departing House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan leaves an open House seat in the Covington-area's 47th LD. Rep. Debra Entenman will defend the other one. Both of those seats are probably fine (Entenman destroyed the competition in her last race), but, again, who knows. Wilcox is excited about the "implications" of an open seat:

Meanwhile, Sen. Mona Das will not seek a second term, she announced in a Facebook post Wednesday evening. In 2018, Das knocked out Republican state Sen. Joe Fain with only 51% of the vote after a woman credibly accused him of rape. Republican Kent City Councilman Bill Boyce is running for the seat, and he doesn't carry that baggage. Democratic Kent City Councilwoman Satwinder Kaur announced her plan to run for the seat shortly after Das's announcement. Biden took 57% of the vote here, so it'll be competitive.

• The 28th Legislative District

Biden also won 57% of the vote in this Tacoma/Lakewood area district, but a big swing could put incumbent House Democrats Mari Leavitt and Dan Bronoske in hot water. Fitzgibbon claims the 28th came out of redistricting looking better by a couple points, and Leavitt and Bronoske whooped up in 2020, so maybe the water won't be so hot.

• The 38th Legislative District

Democrats would have to be in near total meltdown territory to trigger losses in this district, which holds Everett at its center. But, with the retirements of Democratic Reps. Emily Wicks and Mike Sells, both House seats are up for grabs, and so maybe a Republican could stand a chance. But this is a district Biden won with 57% of the vote, so it should be able to absorb a 5-point drop.

• The 30th Legislative District

The last district Dems seem mildly if at all concerned about covers Federal Way. Sen. Claire Wilson defends her seat against Linda Kochmar, a former State House Rep. who got beat pretty bad the last two times she tried to take back her seat. Shouldn't be much in the way of worries there.

Meanwhile, former State Rep. Kristine Reeves is looking to swoop the seat outgoing Rep. Jesse Johnson vacated this year when he decided that taking care of family business sounded better than putting himself through the gantlet of a grueling reelection campaign. Reeves is a seasoned campaigner and so should do okay against Ashli Tagoai, a recent law school grad who appears to be the GOP's main contender. In the other seat, incumbent Rep. Jamila Taylor seems fine, too. She led her opponent comfortably in 2020, but, as in the 38th, a 5-point swing could make a race, if one eventually materializes, uncomfortably close.

How can Dems maintain their majorities?

So, an out-of-control, blood-falling-from-the-sky, totally catastrophic year would see Democrats losing four Senate seats and 17 House seats, giving Republicans control of both chambers. The real-bad scenario would see Democrats losing two Senate seats and seven House seats, leaving them with narrow majorities in both chambers. A good year would see less shrinkage, and a surprisingly good year would actually add a seat to the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

In their efforts to make that blood rain from the sky, Republicans plan to do as they've always done and paint Democrats as the party of crime and taxes.

But part of the work Democrats did this year during the Legislative session could help blunt those attacks. Pedersen argues that early action to fix the long-term health care benefit will help neutralize any critiques about the Dems raising taxes last year just so old people don't have to die in the street. The fixes Dems made to the two police accountability bills that cops took issue with this year should help, too. They also (over Pedersen's objections, he notes) rolled back a police accountability measure that prevented cops from using force to stop people walking away from brief investigatory detentions. That bill might stop cops from screaming their heads off about Democrats and crime in the suburbs, but that seems unlikely.

Five years of governing also gives the party plenty of wins to point to. Passage of modest gun safety measures, abortion protections, education funding, and highway and transit improvements should go over well in the 'burbs. In rural areas, Democratic efforts to bring down the cost of health care and to invest millions into rural broadband might help stanch the bleeding out there.

Political consultant Crystal Fincher said Democrats need healthy turnout to win. And though they have made incremental improvements on some issues, progressives left last session feeling disheartened by a lack of movement on housing, climate change, policing, and a host of other issues.

"There is a meaningful portion of their base that isn’t motivated, and they need to understand why," she said. "The parties have never been further apart. The amount of people at risk of switching D votes to R votes isn’t as big as people are assuming. The big question is how many Democrats who would turn out in a presidential year aren’t turning out this year?"

Anderstone expects 2022 to be "a high-turnout year" relative to other midterms, and he thinks the state's vote-by-mail system will help cover enthusiasm gaps. Citing recent research and modeling, he said, "Republicans are super-duper motivated and Democrats are motivated, too, nearly at presidential-year levels."

But Fincher's criticism holds. If state Democrats came out of the last couple sessions with the ability to say they passed laws to meaningfully lower the cost of housing, dramatically reduce carbon emissions in transportation and buildings, and guarantee health care for all, then maybe they'd get a few more people off the couch.

Progressives determined to prove that theory correct will no doubt challenge a bunch of incumbents in "safe" Democratic districts in and around Seattle, which should offer a good test of the appetite for lefty politics in this socialist hellhole.