This morn­ing, when I clicked over to Cross­cut from NPI’s Pacif­ic NW Por­tal (where I usu­al­ly begin my dai­ly rounds), I noticed, with some amuse­ment, that for­mer Wash­ing­ton State Repub­li­can Par­ty chair­man Chris Vance had post­ed yet anoth­er one of his Repub­li­cans are doing great and well-posi­tioned for the next elec­tion columns, which he has been churn­ing out in one form or anoth­er for years.

The piece serves as Vance’s com­men­tary on the Top Two elec­tion more broad­ly, but the head­line and teas­er plain­ly reflect the nar­ra­tive that Vance is no doubt anx­ious to see edi­to­r­i­al writ­ers, prog­nos­ti­ca­tors, and reporters adopt:

Repub­li­cans appear well-poised to hold state Senate
Inside Pol­i­tics: Incom­ing pri­ma­ry results are sway­ing right, a like­ly pre­dic­tor of what the Novem­ber results will be.

Vance’s piece buries the lede and begins with com­men­tary on the con­gres­sion­al races, but he even­tu­al­ly does offer his opin­ion of the Sen­ate contests.

Hav­ing sur­veyed the elec­toral land­scape and looked at the num­bers in the swing dis­tricts, Vance declares that Democ­rats “appear to face long odds in their quest to gain two seats and retake con­trol of the state Sen­ate floor”. He then goes on to pre­dict (unsur­pris­ing­ly) a Repub­li­can vic­to­ry in every sin­gle com­pet­i­tive race, with the excep­tion of the 35th LD, in the event that Tim Shel­don fails to advance.

Vance’s assess­ment rep­re­sents wish­ful think­ing on the part of Repub­li­cans. They’d like us all to believe that that the win­now­ing elec­tion is an all-impor­tant barom­e­ter. Con­sid­er this excerpt from a piece Vance wrote for Cross­cut in 2010:

Make no mis­take, the [Top Two] results do func­tion as a rough poll.  Past elec­tions have demon­strat­ed that the results in Novem­ber rarely devi­ate more than a few per­cent­age points from the [Top Two elec­tion] results. We now know with a high degree of cer­tain­ty which races will be close, and which races are already over.

Actu­al­ly, what the elec­toral his­to­ry shows is that there is plen­ty of devi­a­tion. The Top Two and Novem­ber gen­er­al (runoff would be a more accu­rate term) are sep­a­rate elec­tions. Con­sid­er the fol­low­ing differences:

  • The Top Two takes place in August when few­er peo­ple are pay­ing atten­tion to pol­i­tics; the gen­er­al takes place in mid-autumn after a mul­ti-week cam­paign sea­son that draws far more news cov­er­age and interest.
  • The Top Two typ­i­cal­ly has low turnout; the gen­er­al elec­tion (par­tic­u­lar­ly in even-num­bered years) typ­i­cal­ly has much high­er turnout.
  • The Top Two fea­tures con­tests with many can­di­dates, in the gen­er­al, there are only two can­di­dates com­pet­ing for each position.

The results of the Top Two are cer­tain­ly inter­est­ing, but not indica­tive or pre­dic­tive of what will hap­pen in Novem­ber. A can­di­date can “lose” in the Top Two (in oth­er words, come in sec­ond place) but win in the gen­er­al elec­tion, as Suzan Del­Bene did in 2012 against John Koster in the 1st Con­gres­sion­al District.

A can­di­date can also appear weak in the Top Two, but go on to win in the general.

For instance, Tami Green, who is chal­leng­ing Steve O’Ban in the 28th, found her­self well under fifty per­cent in the August 2010 win­now­ing elec­tion four years ago with just 47%. Her two Repub­li­can oppo­nents com­bined gar­nered 53% of the vote. She was one of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic House incum­bents that Vance and oth­er Repub­li­can oper­a­tives con­sid­ered to be vul­ner­a­ble. But she went on to win, ulti­mate­ly cap­tur­ing 51% of the vote in the gen­er­al in a tough year for Democrats.

If elec­toral per­for­mance mat­ters so much to Vance, why does­n’t he fac­tor the results of the 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 gen­er­al elec­tions fac­tor into his analy­sis? Maybe it’s because it would under­mine his narrative.

See, the peo­ple of Wash­ing­ton State have been con­sis­tent­ly elect­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic majori­ties to the House and Sen­ate for a decade now.

Even in 2010, a dif­fi­cult year for Democ­rats, the par­ty man­aged to retain con­trol of both the state House and the Sen­ate, after Vance sug­gest­ed they might not in numer­ous install­ments of his “Repub­li­can Par­ty Ris­ing” series.

Vance did­n’t con­fine him­self to prog­nos­ti­cat­ing on leg­isla­tive races in those install­ments, either. For instance, on August 18th, 2010, Vance wrote:

For months, many polit­i­cal observers have scoffed at the idea that Pat­ty Mur­ray was in dan­ger of los­ing. Now all doubt should be gone. Sen. Mur­ray is a for­mi­da­ble politi­cian, but she has had the good for­tune to be on the bal­lot in years when the tide was run­ning against Repub­li­cans in Wash­ing­ton state. Now the oppo­site is true. This race is a toss-up, with the slight­est of advan­tages going to Dino Rossi.

All doubt should be gone, eh? The slight­est of advan­tages to Dino Rossi?

Just a few weeks lat­er, of course, Pat­ty Mur­ray proved she could win regard­less of whether polit­i­cal head­winds were with her or against her. Ini­tial results showed Mur­ray ahead on Elec­tion Night; Rossi con­ced­ed the race with­in twen­ty-four hours, hav­ing lost his third straight statewide elec­tion. Mur­ray ulti­mate­ly pre­vailed with 52.36% of the vote — not her best-ever show­ing, but cer­tain­ly respectable giv­en the polit­i­cal cli­mate and the mon­ey spent against her by Rossi’s Repub­li­can backers.

Nowhere in his lat­est piece for Cross­cut does Vance admit that the peo­ple of Wash­ing­ton State have elect­ed a Demo­c­ra­t­ic major­i­ty to gov­ern the Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate for five cycles in a row. Repub­li­cans did not win con­trol of the Sen­ate in the 2012 elec­tions; they came to pow­er thanks to a post-elec­tion coup that they engi­neered with Rod­ney Tom and Tim Shel­don. It’s more accu­rate to say that Repub­li­cans are try­ing to win a major­i­ty, as opposed to hold­ing one.

Rod­ney Tom has since decid­ed to retire, a devel­op­ment Vance described as “ter­ri­ble news for the Repub­li­cans” in an inter­view with Austin Jenkins.

Tom’s suc­ces­sor will almost cer­tain­ly be Demo­c­ra­t­ic State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Cyrus Habib, who is win­ning more than 60% of the vote in the 48th LD.

Tom’s sud­den retire­ment in April reset the map back to where it was fol­low­ing Nathan Schlicher’s defeat last autumn to Jan Angel, leav­ing Democ­rats in a posi­tion of need­ing to win in two of the sev­er­al swing dis­tricts that have a tra­di­tion of elect­ing both Democ­rats and Republicans.

Among those are the 30th (in south King Coun­ty), the 45th (in east­ern King Coun­ty), and 28th (in west­ern Pierce Coun­ty). Repub­li­cans Andy Hill and Steve O’Ban rep­re­sent the lat­ter two. In the for­mer, Democ­rats are try­ing to hold on to the Sen­ate seat that is being vacat­ed by Tracey Eide.

The Repub­li­cans recruit­ed for­mer Demo­c­ra­t­ic State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mark Milos­cia, who holds a siz­able lead in ear­ly returns. The Democ­rats are send­ing up Shari Song, who has roots in the dis­trict but is not well known there. Song unsuc­cess­ful­ly ran against Rea­gan Dunn last year for King Coun­ty Council.

The real­i­ty is that there are mul­ti­ple paths to a Demo­c­ra­t­ic vic­to­ry in Novem­ber, which is the basis for the title of this post, a riff on Vance’s head­line for Cross­cut. In Matt Isen­how­er and Tami Green, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has two strong chal­lengers to Hill and O’Ban, who are prob­a­bly the Repub­li­cans’ most vul­ner­a­ble incumbents.

If the Repub­li­cans did­n’t think Green and Isen­how­er could beat their can­di­dates, they would­n’t have spent big sums on ear­ly inde­pen­dent expen­di­tures against them. Isen­how­er was the tar­get of duplic­i­tous con­cern trolling, while Green had every­thing but the kitchen sink thrown at her in attack mail­ers and tele­vi­sion ads.

A com­bined Isenhower/Green vic­to­ry is one path­way to vic­to­ry. There are others.

As Vance not­ed, Tim Shel­don is seek­ing reelec­tion in the 35th to anoth­er four-year term, but is being chal­lenged by a real Demo­c­rat, Irene Bowl­ing, who cur­rent­ly leads both him and Repub­li­can Travis Couture.

Bowl­ing’s can­di­da­cy has not attract­ed the same inter­est that Green’s and Isen­how­er’s have to date, but that’s prob­a­bly going to change now, giv­en her unex­pect­ed­ly strong show­ing in the 35th’s three-way race.

Bowl­ing and the oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lengers (Rich Cow­an in the 6th, Seth Fleet­wood in the 42nd, Judy Arbo­gast in the 26th) offer the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty flex­i­bil­i­ty and options. If just one of them hap­pens to catch fire and break through, then the par­ty won’t need to win in two of the three most talked-about dis­tricts (the 28th, 45th, and 30th) — it would only need to win in one of them.

In oth­er words, if the par­ty intel­li­gent­ly sup­ports its chal­lengers and works hard to shape its own des­tiny, it could have a pro­found effect on the elec­toral landscape.

Sen­ate Democ­rats’ goal is to once again have a true blue major­i­ty for the 2015 and 2016 leg­isla­tive ses­sions. So long as they win two of the afore­men­tioned swing dis­tricts, they’ll be in charge. But even if they don’t, it won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that vot­ers will have elect­ed a de jure Repub­li­can major­i­ty. Nor will it mean that the Repub­li­cans will be ready for the next ses­sion and able to move legislation.

Here’s why.

All of the Sen­ate Demo­c­ra­t­ic cau­cus’ incum­bents hap­pen to be in good shape, even Steve Hobbs in the 44th, who Chris Vance pre­vi­ous­ly tried to tag with the “vul­ner­a­ble” label. Fur­ther­more, as men­tioned, Cyrus Habib is a shoo-in in the 48th. That means the Demo­c­ra­t­ic cau­cus will have at least twen­ty-three members.

Their base ros­ter will most like­ly look like this:

  1. Andy Bil­lig
  2. Mar­a­lyn Chase
  3. Annette Cleve­land
  4. Steve Con­way
  5. Jean­nie Darneille
  6. Karen Fras­er
  7. David Frockt
  8. Cyrus Habib
  9. Jim Har­grove
  10. Bob Hasegawa
  11. Bri­an Hatfield
  12. Steve Hobbs
  13. Karen Keis­er
  14. Prami­la Jaya­pal or Louis Watanabe
  15. Jeanne Kohl-Welles
  16. Marko Liias
  17. Rose­mary McAuliffe
  18. John McCoy
  19. Mark Mul­let
  20. Sharon Nel­son
  21. Jamie Ped­er­sen
  22. Kevin Ranker
  23. Chris­tine Rolfes

Since all the Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bents appear safe, Repub­li­cans are left with just one pick­up oppor­tu­ni­ty this cycle, in the 30th LD. There, as I men­tioned, they recruit­ed for­mer State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mark Milos­cia, which prompt­ed incum­bent Tracey Eide to retire. (Eide lat­er claimed she had been plan­ning to leave for a long time, but her deci­sion to retire came as a sur­prise to her caucus).

Unlike Rod­ney Tom and Tim Shel­don, how­ev­er, Mark Milos­cia has tra­di­tion­al­ly held more pro­gres­sive stances on eco­nom­ic issues. By his own admis­sion, it is his stances on social issues that prompt­ed his deci­sion to leave the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

It is not clear how Milos­cia, a his­tor­i­cal­ly pro-labor leg­is­la­tor and a self-pro­claimed cham­pi­on for the rights of work­ing men and women, will fit into the Sen­ate Repub­li­can cau­cus, which holds extreme right wing views on eco­nom­ic issues.

This mat­ters because the Repub­li­cans could end up need­ing Milos­ci­a’s vote on, well, every­thing. See, with­out Milos­cia and/or Shel­don, Repub­li­cans won’t be able to count to twen­ty-five in the Sen­ate — that’s the bare min­i­mum need­ed for a majority.

The take­away from this is that even if Repub­li­cans suc­cess­ful­ly defend all of their incum­bents and Sen­ate Democ­rats don’t win an out­right major­i­ty, they’ll still be in for a rough two years. They’ll most like­ly still be a dys­func­tion­al cau­cus, just as they’ve been since they absorbed Rod­ney Tom and Tim Shel­don at the end of 2012, unable to agree with them­selves and unable to work with either the House or Gov­er­nor Inslee on major issues of impor­tance, like fund­ing education.

By the way, if Shel­don makes it to the gen­er­al and beats Irene Bowl­ing, and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­tors who are up this year all win along with just one of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lengers some­where, it will result in the Sen­ate hav­ing twen­ty-five mem­bers who call them­selves Democ­rats. Mean­ing, the vot­ers will once again have elect­ed a Demo­c­ra­t­ic major­i­ty… if in name only.

There’s no rea­son to believe Tim Shel­don would switch cau­cus­es again — or that even if he want­ed to, the Democ­rats would wel­come him back. But he and Mark Milos­cia, if they win, will cer­tain­ly enjoy influ­ence that the more con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­can mem­bers would undoubt­ed­ly pre­fer they not have.

The dynam­ics of the cau­cus­es going for­ward aren’t some­thing that Chris Vance both­ered to address in his piece for Cross­cut, but they mat­ter. Pol­i­tics is not a game; the win­ners of elec­tions have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to govern.

Sen­ate Repub­li­cans have already demon­strat­ed that’s not a respon­si­bil­i­ty they can han­dle. Iron­i­cal­ly, their hopes of vic­to­ry this fall rest on Demo­c­ra­t­ic defec­tors. If they pull it off, it could well turn out to be a Pyrrhic vic­to­ry, result­ing in two more years of dys­func­tion in the Sen­ate in the buildup to a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion year.

Democ­rats, on the oth­er hand, are hop­ing to win an out­right major­i­ty so that Gov­er­nor Inslee has a part­ner in both hous­es of the Leg­is­la­ture — a part­ner that will work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly with him and the House on com­ply­ing with the McCleary deci­sion, putting togeth­er a trans­porta­tion pack­age, pass­ing the Repro­duc­tive Par­i­ty Act, and broad­en­ing pros­per­i­ty for all Washingtonians.

Democ­rats have recruit­ed many com­pelling can­di­dates, their base is far more ener­gized than it was in 2010, and their chal­lengers have a strong case they can make after two years of inac­tion in the Senate.

In my view, Democ­rats are well-poised to once again win a major­i­ty. Whether they can pull it off remains to be seen, but the oppor­tu­ni­ty is most def­i­nite­ly there.

Chris Vance is free to think that the win­now­ing elec­tion por­tends a Repub­li­can Sen­ate in 2015 and 2016, but he ought to be mind­ful that pun­dits and their prog­nos­ti­ca­tions turn out to be wrong — and more often than they’d like to admit.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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2 replies on “Democrats appear well-poised to once again win a majority in Washington’s state Senate”

  1. The cur­rent Repub­li­can par­ty is does not share val­ues with the major­i­ty of this state.
    When the par­ty had mod­er­ates like Dan Evans, Art Fletch­er, and maybe to a degree Slade Gor­ton, it could com­pete and this state had a strong 2 par­ty system.

  2. Repub­li­cans are always try­ing to trick Democ­rats into not participating/not vot­ing by mak­ing them think the out­come of the next elec­tion is pre­de­ter­mined. I can still remem­ber my right wing rel­a­tives smug­ly pre­dict­ing Oba­ma’s defeat two years out from the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. When Rom­ney con­ced­ed, they could­n’t believe it. Just goes to show it’s not over till it’s over. Good post!

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