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Democrats appear well-poised to once again win a majority in Washington’s state Senate

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.


  1. Posted August 7th, 2014 at 7:31 AM | Permalink

    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. Janice Mulvany
    Posted August 13th, 2014 at 3:23 AM | Permalink

    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!