Republicans said their hopes for a major political comeback in the state Senate and House were boosted Tuesday as several incumbent Democrats in the two chambers failed to capture half the vote or were trailing their GOP challenger.
“I think we’re within striking distance, no question about it,” said Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla, who is now in a 31-18 minority. He cited Republicans leading incumbent Democrats, including Sens. Chris Marr in Spokane, Claudia Kauffman in Kent and Eric Oemig in Kirkland.
Elsewhere around the region, Republicans were eyeing gains in the House. Kevin Carns, leader of the House Republican Organizational Committee, said he thinks his party could gain six to 13 seats, reducing if not erasing the Democrats’ 61-37 advantage.
But Democrats were not conceding much – even though powerful House Ways and Means chairwoman Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, was losing to Republican Vincent Buys in Whatcom County’s 42nd district and other Democrats, such as Rep. John Driscoll of Spokane, were well below 50 percent of the vote.
“We have about 15 seats that are close seats. That’s generally what we have at this stage. Most of them are fairly predictable. I think we’ll do fairly well in some of the toss-ups,” said Rep. Sam Hunt, an Olympia Democrat who easily outdistanced his closest challenger, Chris Ward.
Hunt is the chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee and helps caucus candidates – including Rep. Fred Finn, the Democrat from west Thurston County who had less than 48 percent of the vote in his first re-election run in the 35th district, which runs from west of Olympia to Bremerton.
Finn emerged from the Tuesday’s count as the top vote-getter ahead of Republican Linda Simpson of Bremerton, who got roughly 40 percent, and independent Glenn Gaither of Hoodsport, who was much further back.
“I think anytime you have three people running, particularly with a first-term incumbent, it’s not unusual to have these kind of numbers,” Finn said, adding that he expects a tight race ahead but not a lot of worry. “I think the numbers are good enough they give me encouragement, but not so good I can become complacent. “
“I think Fred will be all right. But again, he is in a very tight race,” Hunt said, expressing the same hope for 35th district Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, who narrowly led Republican Dan Griffey of Allyn in early returns.
Hunt also expects his party to hold both seats in the 22nd district, which serves Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater – including his own. In the other race there, to replace retiring Rep. Brendan Williams, Republican Jason Hearn of Lacey and Democrat Chris Reykdal of Tumwater emerged as the top two vote-getters.
But Hearn, the lone GOP candidate, had just 35 percent of the vote in a Democrat-dominated district, and Hunt is confident Reykdal will win.
In the Senate, Hewitt said, there are four races where Republicans lead the Democratic incumbent and three others he considered close enough that the GOP could win. Hewitt said his party is helped by having just six Senate seats up this election, compared with 19 for the Democrats.
Hewitt said Republicans also are helped by voter angst over the Democrats’ vote to suspend the two-thirds vote requirement for a tax increase and to raise taxes by $800 million.
But Senate Democrats say the GOP gained from turnout by tea-party candidates who will not have as big an effect in the general election, because Democrats will get out their voting base with support from labor.
“To be honest, I was expecting to see worse results. I’m encouraged. I’m not giving up on any race,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, the chairwoman of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee. “If this was an anti-incumbent election, I am not too concerned about the anti-incumbency feeling at this point.”
“There is not one race to walk away from here; we are in a good position,” Keiser added.
Even so, Keiser’s campaign machine will have to help several incumbents. Among them: Marr, who was trailing Republican Michael Baumgartner in Spokane’s 6th district; Kauffmann, who trailed Republican Joe Fain in Kent’s 47th district; Oemig, who trailed Republican Andy Hill in Kirkland’s 45th district; and Sen. Randy Gordon of Bellevue, who narrowly trailed Republican Steve Litzow in the 41st district.
In the House, the Republicans’ Carns noted the vulnerabilities of two Democrats in the 28th district – Rep. Tami Green of Lakewood, who fell short of 50 percent against Republican Paul Wagemann, and Democratic Rep. Troy Kelley, who barely captured half the vote against Republican Steve O’Ban. Others on the cusp included Linville, Finn and Rep. Tim Probst, who trailed Republican Brian Peck in the 17th district near Vancouver.
But the arguments could get more nuanced as the November election approaches and voters see the choices they have. For instance, Finn voted in favor of tax increases but against the bill that made it easier to pass tax increases by suspending a two-thirds vote requirement.
Brad Shannon: 360-357-1688 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/politicsblog