Denny Heck and Marko Liias
Denny Heck and Marko Liias, candidates for Lieutenant Governor (Campaign photos)

Two Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates are com­fort­ably ahead of their oth­er ten rivals in the twelve per­son race for Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor in ear­ly Top Two elec­tion results, which means that the office is pret­ty much guar­an­teed to remain held by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty until at least the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cycle.

Retir­ing Unit­ed States Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Den­ny Heck and State Sen­a­tor Marko Liias are eas­i­ly out­pac­ing five Repub­li­cans, two Lib­er­tar­i­ans, and one oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date to claim the top two spots in the race to suc­ceed out­go­ing Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor Cyrus Habib, who is leav­ing pol­i­tics to join the Jesuits.

Heck is com­fort­ably in first place with 27.71% of the vote, while Liias has a firm grasp on sec­ond place with 16.6%. Repub­li­can Ann Davi­son Sat­tler is in third place, with 11.55%. The Repub­li­can vote is split between a total of five can­di­dates, as men­tioned above, with the oth­ers being Mar­ty McClen­don (10.8%), Dick Muri (9.9%), Joseph Brum­bles (7.58%), and Bill Penor.

Denny Heck and Marko Liias
Den­ny Heck and Marko Liias, can­di­dates for Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor (Cam­paign photos)

The dynam­ics in this race mir­ror those in the 2016 Trea­sur­er’s race, which saw two Repub­li­cans advance to the gen­er­al elec­tion from the Top Two elec­tion due to three Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates (one of whom was Liias) each split­ting the vote almost equal­ly and com­ing in behind the Republicans.

In a real pri­ma­ry, vot­ers pick nom­i­nees to rep­re­sent each par­ty on the gen­er­al elec­tion bal­lot, so this sort of out­come would be unheard of in most oth­er states. Wash­ing­ton, how­ev­er, does not have a real primary.

That’s because Wash­ing­to­ni­ans vot­ed in 2004 to insti­tute a “top two” qual­i­fy­ing elec­tion sys­tem at the urg­ing of the state Grange and its allies.

The Top Two can be thought of as the first round in a mul­ti-round gen­er­al elec­tion, with the autumn elec­tion serv­ing as the final round or runoff. The pur­pose of the first round is to win­now every field of can­di­dates down to no more than two, and the law says it does­n’t mat­ter what par­ty they asso­ciate with.

That’s why a gen­er­al elec­tion bal­lot can fea­ture two Democ­rats and two Repub­li­cans, even in statewide races like this one.

The Top Two is an awful sys­tem, deny­ing minor par­ties bal­lot access and reduc­ing ide­o­log­i­cal diver­si­ty on Wash­ing­to­ni­ans’ autumn bal­lots, and deserves to be repealed. Hope­ful­ly, at some point in the 2020s, it will be.

The Heck vs. Liias out­come is sure to frus­trate Repub­li­cans, just as the Trea­sur­er race frus­trat­ed Democ­rats four years ago. Though Repub­li­cans were not like­ly to win any­way, they have no chance at all and no can­di­date to ral­ly behind in the gen­er­al because they did not cull the field of can­di­dates who want­ed the job.

The Wash­ing­ton State Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty clear­ly learned from its expe­ri­ence in the Trea­sur­er’s race, as it put up one and only one can­di­date for the posi­tion this year (Mike Pel­lic­ciot­ti), who is incum­bent Repub­li­can Duane David­son’s sole challenger.

Both Heck and Liias are expe­ri­enced elect­ed lead­ers with broad sup­port behind their can­di­da­cies. Heck is endorsed by the state’s for­mer liv­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nors, most of his col­leagues in Con­gress, and by four term Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor Brad Owen, Cyrus Habib’s pre­de­ces­sor. Liias is endorsed by Habib and near­ly all of his col­leagues in the Wash­ing­ton State Senate.

Both can­di­dates are backed by the Wash­ing­ton State Labor Coun­cil and the Wash­ing­ton Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers, which dual endorsed.

Heck is cur­rent­ly win­ning every coun­ty in West­ern Wash­ing­ton except for Lewis Coun­ty, which is extreme­ly right wing. He’s also win­ning Whit­man and Wal­la Wal­la coun­ties. Liias is not win­ning any coun­ties, but will nev­er­the­less advance on to the gen­er­al elec­tion thanks to his per­for­mance in King and Sno­homish counties.

Repub­li­can Mar­ty McClen­don is win­ning most of the small­er coun­ties east of the Cas­cades, though he has few­er votes over­all than Ann Davi­son Sattler.

The Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor of Wash­ing­ton State has three prin­ci­pal respon­si­bil­i­ties: pre­side over the Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate, fill in for the gov­er­nor as need­ed, and serve as a bridge between the con­suls based in the cities of the Pacif­ic North­west and the gov­ern­ment of Wash­ing­ton State. (Con­suls are diplo­mat­ic offi­cials who rep­re­sent oth­er coun­tries, like Swe­den, Mex­i­co, or Japan.)

The Con­sti­tu­tion per­mits the Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor to cast a vote in the Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate in order to break a tie. Ties are uncom­mon, since the Sen­ate had an odd num­ber of mem­bers, but they do occa­sion­al­ly happen.

If Heck wins in the runoff, he could be spend­ing a lot of time inter­act­ing with Liias in the Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate if Liias keeps his cur­rent posi­tion as Major­i­ty Floor Leader. It is the Major­i­ty Floor Lead­er’s job to bring pro­ce­dur­al and busi­ness motions on behalf of the cham­ber’s major­i­ty cau­cus, which entails apply­ing for (and receiv­ing!) recog­ni­tion from the Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor on a con­stant basis.

If Liias wins, he will need to resign from the Sen­ate (he’s mid­way through a four year term) to take the job he’s now seek­ing. A spe­cial nom­i­nat­ing cau­cus would be called to draw up a list of poten­tial suc­ces­sors, one of whom would be cho­sen by the Sno­homish Coun­ty Coun­cil to take Liias’ place in the Sen­ate. All names on the list would be Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates, sub­mit­ted by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

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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