It’s not quite 1994.
Not in Olympia, at least, where Republicans were hoping to repeat their gains of 16 years ago, when a national “Republican Revolution” helped them take over the House by snatching 28 seats away from Democrats, and come within a seat of Senate control.
By any measure, it’s still a good year for the Legislature’s Republicans. Barring major reversals, they are likely to keep all their seats while enlarging their minorities by at least four Senate and four House seats.
But it could have been a lot worse for Democrats. Votes counted after Election Night have so far broken toward Democrats, dimming GOP hopes for ending solid Democratic control of Olympia. That Democratic surge mirrors results in the state’s races for Congress, with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray widening her lead over defeated challenger Dino Rossi and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen overtaking GOP challenger John Koster after trailing on Election Night.
Theories abound for why GOP gains have eroded as later ballots were counted.
The simplest answer is that Republicans were fired up enough to vote early, buoyed by the expectation of a national wave of voter anger at the Democrats in power in Washington, D.C.
“The enthusiastic party votes first,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz, who said Democrats held that position in 2006 and 2008 and saw a surge of Republican votes in later counts.
Less excitement on the Democrats’ side may have kept them from voting early, but not from voting at all. That’s the result of Washington’s vote-by-mail system, said Chris Gregorich, director of the state Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.
“Even apathetic voters,” Gregorich said, “it’s easy for them to come around to actually voting.”
It may have helped that Democrats brought in their heavy hitters.
President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama all came to Washington state to stump for Murray in the closing days of the election.
“Clearly the Democrats were worried, and they did some things that were smart moves and probably stopped them from having even bigger” losses, said Brent Ludeman, director of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.
State Democrats also credited a strong get-out-the-vote effort for the post-election surge.
“We made a million phone calls in October and knocked on 350,000 doors,” Pelz said. On the last weekend, 175 paid staff and thousands of volunteers worked to persuade people identified as Democrats to vote.
Among the Democratic survivors who were seen during the campaign as vulnerable: Rep. Troy Kelley of Tacoma, Rep. Tami Green of Lakewood and Rep. Larry Seaquist of Gig Harbor. Sen. Tracey Eide of Redondo led Republican Tony Moore on Friday by 979 votes.
Eide, who controls the flow of legislation as floor leader for Senate Democrats, lost her seat in 1994, as did Rep. Hans Dunshee of Snohomish, the House capital budget chairman who also survived this time.
Nevertheless, Republicans made major gains. They appeared to be on their way to ousting another victim of the 1994 wave, Rep. Kelli Linville of Bellingham, the House’s lead budget writer.
And by large margins, they unseated two 47th district Democrats: Sen. Claudia Kauffman of Kent, defeated by Joe Fain, and Rep. Geoff Simpson of Covington, who lost to Mark Hargrove.
“They didn’t fit the district,” said Lori Sotelo, chairwoman of the King County Republican Party. “I think our guys more fit the district and the demographic and the political background.”
Another race was too close to call, as Democratic Rep. Dawn Morrell led challenger Hans Zeiger by just 101 votes in the 25th district.
If trends continue, Democrats’ new and smaller majorities would be 57-41 in the House and 27-22 in the Senate.
“At least we’re going to get back to public debate,” said Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla, who had battled against a 31-18 Democratic majority early this year when Democrats approved nearly $800 million in new revenues over GOP objections. “We’ve been shut out of the process for the last four years. Now we’re getting back to the table and we’re back in the hunt.’’