Republicans hope to cut into Washington Democrats' lopsided statehouse majorities in today's elections, perhaps even taking control of a chamber for the first time in six years.
All 98 state House seats and 25 of 49 Senate seats are on the ballot. Many positions on both sides of the aisle are considered safe, leaving intense battles over a relatively small slice to decide which side controls the Legislature.
The GOP steadily lost ground during the last decade, finally giving up its one-seat control of the state Senate in 2004. Democrats control the House with a 61-37 margin and the Senate with a 31-18 majority.
Republicans are expected to make gains this election, but whether they can seize control of either the House or the Senate won’t be known for days as mail-in ballots trickle in to county officials.
Generally, Republicans are trying to reclaim suburban swing districts they lost during President George W. Bush’s terms. Today’s staggering economy and backlash against strong Democratic control – in both Olympia and Washington, D.C. – could help reverse that trend.
Democrats are playing defense for the first time in years, but they have considerable majorities to work with. Those large gaps make it much harder for the GOP to climb back into control in one election cycle.
It seems clear, however, that Republicans will gain influence over legislative policy.
House Republicans have a larger playing field of competitive races to find the 13-seat gain needed to take control of the larger chamber. There appear to be about a dozen relatively close races and about a half-dozen that could be easier for Republicans to claim.
“I think people are tired of overspending and they’re ready for an economic turnaround,” said Kevin Carns, director of the House Republican Organizational Committee. “We’ve just tried to educate them: You’ve got one-party rule in this state, so give us a chance to govern.”
Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, is the House Democrats’ campaign chairman. Like others working the legislative campaigns, he sees a fluid electorate that could break either way in some close races.
“Things just sort of change daily. It’s really hard to get a pulse on it,” Hunt said. “I’m fairly confident that we’ll maintain our majority. I’m not going to pick a number of seats. I really don’t have an idea where we’re going to wind up.”
One of the close races is in the 28th District in and around Lakewood, where Democratic Rep. Troy Kelley is competing with Republican attorney Steve O’Ban. Between the candidates and outside parties, state campaign finance reports show spending on that race has topped $460,000.
Other Democratic incumbents in the area who struggled in the primary include Reps. Dawn Morrell of Puyallup, Geoff Simpson of Covington and Larry Seaquist of Gig Harbor.
Senate Republicans will have to basically run the table in competitive races to earn the seven seats needed to control the smaller chamber. The Senate GOP’s campaign chairman, Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said Republicans have been able to recruit quality candidates to take advantage of the environment.
“I think they are probably the best overall group that has been recruited into the Senate in my career,” Schoesler said. “They come with tremendous real-world experience and educational backgrounds that are incredible.”
One example is Michael Baumgartner, who has a Harvard master’s degree and experience in civilian foreign service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Baumgartner is challenging first-term Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane.
Their campaign for Spokane’s 6th District is among the most expensive legislative races in state history, with more than $1 million already spent by the candidates and outside groups, according to state Public Disclosure Commission reports.
Other heated contests cluster around the vote-rich Puget Sound region. One example is the race between Senate Ways and Means Vice Chairman Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Republican businessman Gregg Bennett. They’re competing in the Bellevue area’s 48th District, where total spending has topped $950,000 so far including outside groups.
Democratic Sens. Tracey Eide of Federal Way and Claudia Kauffman of Kent also face competitive races, judging by primary results.
Senate Democratic officials didn’t return messages seeking comment on this fall’s races.