Paul Berendt is a former chair of the Washington State Democratic Party.
When Washington State voters go to the polls this November, it is not just the outcome of the hotly contested governor’s race that hangs in the balance. Effective control of the state senate is at stake as well.
A net Democratic gain of just one seat in the 26 state senate contests this year—or in the right circumstance, even an electoral draw—would result in a major progressive shift in the balance of power in Olympia. Currently, Democrats outnumber Republicans in both houses of the legislature. In the house of representatives, the Democratic advantage is a healthy 55-43 split, but in the senate, while Democrats hold an ostensible 27-22 advantage, several Democrats are ideologically more in line with Republicans.
Nowhere was this clearer than in this year’s budget showdown. Republicans (with three conservative Democratic allies) actually held a narrow 25-24 procedural majority in the upper house, and used that advantage to wrest control of the senate in the waning days of the regular session, pushing forward a proposed budget that reduced funding for K-12 and higher education, bit further into our already tattered social safety net, and blocked efforts to strengthen women’s health protections.
Senate Democrats have responded by focusing on recruiting exceptional candidates in several swing districts where Republican incumbents, all of whom stood in partisan lockstep with their leadership on the budget battle, are vulnerable.
Based on my analysis of the constellation of races, the Democrats’ key senate pickup opportunities are as follows:
The 17th Legislative District: This is arguably the Democrats best opportunity to take a Republican Senate seat. The 17th, covering suburban Clark County, is a quintessential swing district represented by Sen. Don Benton, a divisive Tea Party conservative out of step with his more moderate district. Benton has made multiple failed bids for higher offices, and his brief stint as Republican Party Chair a decade ago was plagued by missteps and controversies, leading Republicans to boot him only eight months into his term.
Running against Benton is Rep. Tim Probst, a candidate almost tailor-made for a swing district like the 17th. Probst is a moderate Democrat with a reputation in Olympia for working hard on bread and butter issues of education and job creation, particularly workforce development. Unlike the controversial Benton, it is difficult to find someone in Olympia who dislikes Probst. Benton barely retained his seat in 2008 against a weak challenger, while Probst got nearly 56 percent of the vote in his first run for the House that same year. Democrats have reason to be optimistic about this race.
5th Legislative District: Moderate Republican Cheryl Pflug won plaudits for her vote this session in favor of gay marriage, but she just announced that she is not running for reelection, instead accepting a gubernatorial appointment to the state Growth Management Hearings Board. Pflug’s decision turns the 5th into a very real Democratic pick up opportunity. While conventional wisdom assumes the district to be Republican territory (Dino Rossi got his start here), it is actually much more of a swing district than most realize. Obama, for instance, won this district in 2008 with 57 percent of the vote.
With Pflug not running, Republicans are represented by an unknown hardline conservative, newcomer Brad Toft, who has raised only $12,000. Meanwhile, Democrats are swooning over challenger Mark Mullet, an Issaquah City Councilor and a successful small businessman who owns a Ben & Jerry’s and a Zeek’s Pizza in the Issaquah Highlands. Socially progressive and fiscally moderate, Mullet fits the district like a glove, and he’s already raised more than $60,000.
41st Legislative District: Republican Steve Litzow represents a lean Democratic district, covering Mercer Island and parts of Issaquah and Sammamish. Lizow, a first-termer, barely won in 2010 with a razor thin 192-vote margin. Like Pflug, he bucked his party on the gay marriage vote, but he also has some explaining to do for his hard right turn late in the session. He not only supported the Republican budget coup, but also—despite being a former board member of the NARAL PAC—stuck with his conservative caucus in voting against the pro-choice community’s top priority, the Reproductive Parity Act. Women’s groups have not forgotten Litzow’s betrayal.
Litzow’s opponent, Maureen Judge, is sure to hang those votes around Litzow’s neck. Judge, a former RealNetworks and Expedia executive and until recently the head of the Washington Toxics Coalition, has a strong record of environmental and pro-choice leadership (Judge also served on the NARAL PAC board). Expect this race to go down to the wire.
2nd Legislative District: Challenger Bruce Lachney has Democrats thinking they’ve got a chance of capturing a seat in what ordinarily would be considered Republican territory around Eatonville. While the district leans Republican, it improved for Democrats in redistricting, and was in fact represented by Democrat Marilyn Rasmussen until 2008.
First-term Republican incumbent Randi Becker barely beat Rasmussen four years ago. Democratic strategists describe Lachney as a dream candidate: A cranberry farmer and commercial airline pilot, he has deep roots in the community, serving on the Eatonville school board and as a planning commissioner. The 2nd is tough territory for Dems, but Lachney has proven appeal to moderate and independent voters, and Becker has reason to be nervous.
28th Legislative District: Republican Mike Carrell has held this senate seat for eight years, though the district leans Democrat, with progressive Democratic Representative Tami Green and moderate Democrat Troy Kelley representing it in the house. Carrell is a traditional conservative Republican and is known as a hard worker on the campaign trail, though he benefited four years ago from weak Democratic opposition.
On the Democratic side, Steilacoom School Board member Yoshie Wong has just thrown her hat into the ring. She brings proven electability (she won her school board seat with over 62 percent of the vote) and strong progressive values that should excite the Democratic base. While Wong entered the race later than other candidates, the district’s Democratic leanings puts this seat in play.
Of course, Democrats have seats they will have to defend as well. In the 25th Legislative District around Puyallup, incumbent Sen. Jim Kastama is moving on to run for Secretary of State. Expect this seat to go to Republicans (even Democrats privately acknowledge that Rep. Bruce Dammeier is a strong candidate), but since the conservative Kastama was one of the Democrats who sided with Republicans on the budget, the loss of this seat will make little difference the actual Senate balance of power.
Four other Democrats—Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, Sens. Margarita Prentice, Craig Pridemore, and Debbie Regala—are retiring, but all four seats are considered safe Democratic holds. Two other veteran Democrats, Sens. Mary Margaret Haugen and Rosemary McAuliffe, are facing serious challengers.
Haugen is the powerful and respected Senate Transportation Committee chair, and she has a long track record of delivering for her 10th legislative district constituents in Island and Kitsap counties. Republican Rep. Barbara Bailey of Oak Harbor is moving up to challenge Haugen in this closely divided district, but Bailey has been a low profile backbencher in five House terms. Expect a close race, but the Haugen, a veteran of many tough campaigns, should prevail.
The same is true for McAuliffe, a four-term incumbent who represents the 1st Legislative District around Bothell and who chairs the Senate Education Committee. McAulliffe is facing Guy Palumbo, who originally filed as an Independent but has since switched his party affiliation to Democrat, and Republicans just put forward Northshore School Board member Dawn McCravey. An accomplished legislator who has worked tirelessly to improve schools, McAuliffe should be able to hold on to this solidly blue district.
Looking at the 26 races in aggregate, the prognosis is clear: Democrats are poised to regain an actual 25-24 or even a 26-23 working majority after November. And that will happen even when they lose Kastama’s seat. There is a long way to go between now and the election, but the way the political landscape is shaping up, we’re not likely to see a repeat of the Republican takeover when the legislature reconvenes in January.