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.
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minor parties ballot access and reducing ideological diversity on Washingtonians’ autumn ballots, and deserves to be repealed.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.