Swing Democrat faces challenges from both sides

Democratic state Sen. Tim Sheldon will soon find out what voters in his independent-minded 35th District think of his move last year to join Republicans and one other Democrat to seize control of the state Senate.

The longtime maverick from Mason County who helped form the Majority Coalition Caucus has already drawn challengers from both major parties. They include Democrat Irene Bowling, a music teacher from Bremerton, and self-described “libertarian Republican” Travis Couture, a Navy veteran from Belfair.

Both challengers are new to electoral politics and say the incumbent’s 24 years in the Legislature is enough. Neither is impressed that Sheldon joined a coalition that produced bipartisan budgets, which in Bowling’s view also led to blockage of Democratic priorities.

Left high-centered this year were Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed $200 million boost in investments in K-12 schools to answer a state Supreme Court ruling; proposals to close as many as seven tax breaks, including one for oil refineries; and legislation that would have required coverage of abortion in health insurance plans that cover pregnancy.

“The Senate needs help from Democrats. The transportation budget wasn’t passed, the education budget wasn’t passed, the capital budget wasn’t passed,” Bowling said after holding a kickoff event near Olympia last weekend.

Sheldon said he thinks voters like his approach.

“My opponent may criticize the coalition, but we passed budgets by 44-to-4 and 48-to-1 in the Senate. That’s amazing,” Sheldon said. “I think I’ll do well because the voters know me and I try to represent everyone.”

Couture, who works at the naval shipyard at Bangor in Kitsap County, said Sheldon and the Republican-dominated majority coalition didn’t put up enough of a fight against expanding Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2013.

He also accused the majority of lying on taxes by accepting legislation in 2013 that slightly raised the estate tax and overhauled the telephone tax — two moves made in response to court rulings that would have cut big holes in the state revenue stream.

Couture added that Sheldon’s longtime alliances with the Senate GOP are not enough. “In my view, caucusing with the Republicans is kind of a power play. Before, he was back-benching it with the Democrats; now he’s Senate president pro tem.”

Sheldon said he’ll seek to join forces with Republicans again next year, even though he considers himself a Democrat.

“I’m going to run as a Democrat. I’ve been elected nine times as a Democrat and I hope the Republicans will caucus with me,” Sheldon said. “I’m not trying to be arrogant or egotistical. People say I caucus with the Republicans. I think they caucus with me.”

One of Sheldon’s key partners in the Senate coalition’s 26-23 majority – Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina – announced a week ago that he won’t run for re-election this fall, citing health and family concerns.

Tom’s 48th District seat is considered an easier win for Democrats looking to reclaim the seat for the caucus. With Tom gone, Adam Bartz of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee said, Sheldon’s seat now could be in the top five seats the Democrats target statewide. Progressive Majority Washington this week launched a campaign calling on Sheldon to follow Tom’s lead and bow out.

As incumbents often do, Sheldon has a financial edge to go with his name familiarity. He raised nearly $80,000, much of it from interest groups, while Bowling has reported receiving $20,922 and Couture $8,468, according to data on file at the state Public Disclosure Commission.

The Senate Republican Campaign Committee is also backing Sheldon’s his bid, giving him $900 through its PAC last year and planning to support him in the primary and general elections, according to Brent Ludeman, executive director of the SRCC.

In a sign of the 35th district’s growing importance to both parties in 2014, eight-term Democratic Rep. Kathy Haigh of Shelton also has drawn two opponents, both Republicans. Firefighter Dan Griffey of Allyn ran twice before and lost close races, while Navy Reserve officer Josiah Rowell of Union has raised more than $23,500, nearly three times Haigh’s total.

House Republicans have targeted the seat in their quest to reduce House Democrats’ 12-seat majority.

Democrats are still looking for someone to take on Rep. Drew MacEwen, the first-term Republican from Union who won the other 35th district House open seat after Democrat Fred Finn retired. One Democratic candidate bowed out of the competition, citing health problems, according to Democratic Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia, chairman of House Democrats’ campaign committee.