The GOP’s gains are less than the party had hoped for but could give Republicans more of a voice on tax and budget issues next year.
Votes remain to be counted, but Republicans already have won four Senate seats that had been in the Democratic column and were near certain to win four House seats. One Senate race and three House races still were undecided, and King County votes were helping Democrats in some of those races to reverse Republican leads.
“At least we’re going to get back to public debate,” said Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla. “We’ve been shut out of the process for the last four years. Now we’re getting back to the table and we’re back in the hunt.”
Hewitt’s caucus was outnumbered 31-18 by the Democrats this year when they approved nearly $800 million in new revenues over GOP objections. If vote-counting trends from late in the week continue, Democrats’ new and smaller majorities will be 57-41 in the House and 27-22 in the Senate.
Rep. Gary Alexander, a Thurston County Republican who leads his caucus on budget issues, said he doesn’t think the GOP picked up enough House seats to sharply tilt the discussion in that chamber.
“I don’t know if it makes that much difference. If we could have gotten to about 46 it would have made a significant difference,” Alexander said Friday. “There are four or five Democrats who are pretty conservative, and we could have worked with (them).”
But Alexander said it is promising that Gov. Chris Gregoire seemed to want Republicans involved in legislative decisions to cut services. He also had not given up hope his party might still gain another seat or two.
Democrats, meanwhile, were preparing for a tough legislative session with spending cuts on the table and little appetite for taxes – after voters soundly approved a tax repeal initiative and passed another measure to require two-thirds supermajorities to raise taxes in the Legislature.
Voters also ousted key Democrats such as Rep. Kelli Linville of Bellingham, who was losing by 545 votes Friday to Republican Vincent Buys. Linville was the chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee and marshaled the budget-writing effort in the House this year, and her budgets required tax increases in 2010 but also cut more than $4 billion in spending over the past two years.
Gregoire noted Friday that voters sent a message that they expect no new revenues and an all-cuts budget.
“Obviously it’s going to be very difficult” to govern, said Rep. Sam Hunt, the Olympia Democrat who serves as the chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee. He expects to have a majority of about 55 Democrats in the House but said, “I think it’s equally difficult if you have 60, 55 or 57.”
Hunt said voter approval of activist Tim Eyman’s initiative requiring two-thirds votes on taxes means lawmakers will have “one and a half hands tied behind our back.”
“With Eyman’s initiative, you can’t close (tax) loopholes, you can’t add revenues, and you can’t increase fees (without a supermajority). You can only cut. It’s going to be extremely difficult,” Hunt said. “The governor said the other day we have cut around the edges, and now we have to eliminate programs and departments.”
Some undecided races could require recounts. One big worry to Hunt and a source of hope to his Republican rivals was in Pierce County’s 25th district. Rep. Dawn Morrell, the House Democratic Caucus chairwoman, led Republican Hans Zeiger of Sumner by just 16 votes Thursday afternoon – an edge that grew to 101 votes by Friday evening and could easily change again in the coming days.
The Morrell-Zeiger race was on track for a mandatory recount, which happens if the vote difference remains less than a half-percent.
Another race on the edge of a recount is the 44th district Senate campaign, in which former Republican lawmaker Dave Schmidt of Bothell trailed first-term Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens by just 543 votes.
But several seats were getting more clearly into the Democrats’ column – including both 35th district House seats. Rep. Kathy Haigh of Shelton edged 954 votes ahead of Republican Dan Griffey of Allyn, and Rep. Fred Finn of west Thurston County pulled 3,635 votes ahead of challenger Republican Linda Simpson of Bremerton.
The 35th district includes Mason County and parts of Thurston, Grays Harbor and Kitsap counties.
Two Democratic Senate seats also appeared to be veering out of Republican hands. Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, expanded her lead Friday to 979 votes over Republican Tony Moore in the 30th, and Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, expanded his edge to 1,010 votes over Republican Greg Bennett in the Bellevue area’s 48th district.
Only one Republican lost his position – but the seat stays in the party’s hands. Republican Rep. Tom Campbell of Spanaway lost to Republican J.T. Wilcox of Roy. Campbell often sided with Democrats on labor, consumer protection and some environmental issues.
Overall, the losses could have been much worse for the Democrats, who got out the vote in key areas such as King County.
“I think we did a fairly good job of telling our story and having good candidates that went out and worked very, very hard to talk about what we have done,” Hunt said.
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/politicsblog