The Washington State Democratic Party’s effort to recapture the state Senate got a big boost today with the announcement that the party has found a challenger to take on freshman Republican Andy Hill in the 45th Legislative District. Hill is the Chairman of the Senate’s Ways & Means Committee.
Matt Isenhower, thirty-three, says he’s running because the Eastside’s families and young people need an advocate. Republicans have done nothing but obstruct and obfuscate since they seized control of the state Senate in 2012 with the help of Democrats-in-name-only Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon. Since then, the Senate has turned into a graveyard of progress. It’s where good bills go to die.
Isenhower wants to change that.
“I have always been proud to call the Eastside my home and want to continue to make this a great place to live, work and raise a family,” said Isenhower in a press release announcing the launch of his campaign.
“But I look at the partisan politics in the State Senate and see where it hurts our communities: underfunded schools, [State Route] 520 over budget with stalled negotiations to complete construction, looming Metro cuts, and a refusal to vote on safeguarding women’s health care. Our growing, dynamic region — and the families who live here — simply deserve better.”
One of those families is Isenhower’s. A Redmond High alum and native of the district, Isenhower lives in Redmond’s Education Hill neighborhood with his wife April and two young children. He has a B.S. from the United States Naval Academy and an M.B.A. from Harvard. As a naval officer, he served on board the U.S.S. Winston Churchill before taking a job in the Pentagon, where he coordinated crisis response activities with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and fleet commanders.
Isenhower is backed by State Representatives Ross Hunter and Roger Goodman, as well as U.S. Representatives Suzan DelBene and Adam Smith. Hunter represents the 45th’s neighboring district to the south, the 48th, and is the House’s chief budget writer. He is also seeking the endorsement of the 45th District Democrats.
(Full disclosure: I serve on the executive board of the 45th District Democrats and represent the organization on the Washington State Democratic Central Committee as its state committeeman. NPI does not endorse candidates for office, or participate in any independent expenditure campaigns for or against candidates).
Incumbent Republican Andy Hill won election to the state Senate in 2010, narrowly defeating one-term incumbent Democrat Eric Oemig with the help of favorable electoral headwinds. Oemig had previously been elected himself in a wave election year. Like Claudia Kauffman, he rode into office in 2006 on the Democratic tsunami that drastically altered the makeup of the Legislature.
Republicans have been chipping away at those big gains ever since. They have not won an outright majority in over a decade, but thanks to Tom and Sheldon, they were able to take control of the Senate anyway.
What’s really interesting about the last two contests for Senate in the 45th is that they pitted incumbent officeholders against challengers who started out with little name recognition, but were able to capitalize on their personal networks and build winning campaigns. In 2006, Eric Oemig faced what many party operatives on both sides thought would be a very tough campaign against Republican Toby Nixon.
Oemig had originally planned to run against Republican leader Bill Finkbeiner, but Finkbeiner opted to retire instead. (He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2012 against Brad Owen). When Finkbeiner bowed out, State Representative Toby Nixon vacated his seat in the House to run. Technically speaking, Nixon wasn’t the incumbent in the race, but he might as well have been since he’d run and won district-wide before. Oemig had not, yet he managed to defeat Nixon.
Four years later, Oemig sought reelection, but lost to Republican Andy Hill, who, like Oemig, was a first time candidate new to politics. Although Republicans were able to knock out Oemig, they were unable to defeat either Larry Springer or Roger Goodman, the district’s two Democratic representatives. Springer and Goodman subsequently each won reelection in 2012 by significant margins.
The 45th may be a swing district, but it leans Democratic. With the exception of Hill, the voters of the 45th have exclusively sent Democrats to the Legislature every cycle since 2004. The district was redrawn in 2011, and it shrunk geographically, but its electoral makeup has not changed very much.
Isenhower’s background is impressive, and will undoubtedly help him as he tries to build a formidable campaign for Senate. As the Legislature is currently in session, Andy Hill is prohibited from doing any fundraising, which will give Isenhower some time to catch up. Hill, however, has already amassed a big war chest. As of the date the fundraising freeze took effect, he had raised over $200,000 for his reelection effort, with many big donations from corporate political action committees.
(Corporations like to give to incumbents, which is one of the reasons why incumbents have such a high reelection rate).
Isenhower’s top priorities as a candidate are fully funding our public schools, addressing our transportation mess and holding extremism in check. Like us, when he looks at what’s happening in the Senate, he doesn’t like what he sees.
The Senate’s Eastside Republican cabal, which now includes Rodney Tom in addition to Andy Hill, Joe Fain, and Steve Litzow, has allowed the party’s Tea Party wing to block bills like the DREAM Act, Reproductive Parity Act, and Voting Rights Act from coming to a vote. Republicans claim to be concerned about jobs, education, and the budget, but their own budget proposal last year was a farce, and they were unable to agree even amongst themselves on a transportation package.
Publicly, the caucus does a very good job of maintaining a united front. But it is a facade. Internal disagreements within the caucus are said to run deep, which helps explain why two special sessions were necessary before Senate Republicans were able to reach agreement with House Democrats and Governor Jay Inslee on a budget. The final budget agreement ended up looking much more like the House’s original proposal than the Senate’s, crafted by none other than Andy Hill.