Business groups are pouring money into campaign advertising for State Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat who backs the Republican-leaning coalition that holds a slim majority in the state Senate.
More than $161,000 in third-party ads or phone calls have flooded Sheldon’s 35th Legislative District, most of it in the past week as Tuesday’s primary election approaches. Business groups are behind at least four political action committee mailings landing in mailboxes.
No other Washington race has drawn as much third-party spending in the primary. Contributors to mailers backing Sheldon included PACs representing builders, Realtors, health care providers, restaurateurs and the food and beverage industries. Their spending tops Sheldon’s own reported campaign outlays.
For Republicans, re-electing Sheldon would make it more likely their Senate Majority Coalition retains power in the Senate, serving as a block against bills backed by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and House majority Democrats, who may not be as friendly to business.
For Senate Democrats, defeating Sheldon would improve their odds of taking back the Senate, which could advance environmental legislation and lead to closure of a few tax exemptions.
Because Washington has a top-two primary, only the top two candidates move to November, so Sheldon must beat either libertarian-leaning Republican Travis Couture of Belfair or Democrat Irene Bowling of Bremerton to survive.
“I think it is a pivotal race,” said Patrick Connor, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, which sent a mailer to district voters Wednesday. “Sen. Sheldon was one of two Democrats to join with Republicans to form the majority coalition. As a result, small business avoided a whole lot” of unfavorable tax and regulatory actions.
The mailer says NFIB is fighting against “Seattle-style policies” such as a higher minimum wage, sick leave mandates and required paid vacations.
State Democrats also have hit back at Sheldon, but the party has not reported the cost. Its mailer points out that Sheldon has held two positions — state senator and Mason County commissioner — and was “hitting the jackpot” with two salaries while many were struggling.
The 35th District includes Mason County and parts of Thurston, Kitsap and Grays Harbor counties.
Besides the NFIB piece, pro-Sheldon mailers also were sent by two political action committees formed by an array of business groups, as well as by the Washington Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, and by the Washington Dental PAC. Stand for Children, an education reform group, also spent on automated phone calls to voters in the district in favor of Sheldon.
The biggest outlay among them was $78,425 spent by Taxpayers for Sheldon. That group’s donors are political action committees, including the Washington Association of Realtors PAC, which gave $30,000; Building Industry Association of Washington, $15,000; Physicians Insurance, $10,000; Washington Beverage Association PAC, $10,000; DOC PAC of Washington, $5,000; WashBankPAC, $5,000; Washington Restaurant Association PAC, $5,000; Washington Food Industry Association PAC, $2,500; MAC PAC, $1,500; and the Washington Defense Trial Lawyers Civil Defense PAC, $1,000.
“I just think Tim’s been such a stalwart legislator for so long that a number of business interests wanted to make sure in a three-way primary that voters understood what he’s meant to the district and to the economy of our state. It’s a crowded primary,” said Denny Eliason, a lobbyist for the Washington Bankers Association and other interests, who is coordinating the Taxpayers for Sheldon group.
Also spending big in the race is Enterprise Washington, whose Issaquah-based PAC supports candidates that back business, jobs and economic development, according to Michael Davis, president of Enterprise Washington. Its People for Jobs Enterprise Washington PAC has raised more than $400,000 this election cycle and has reported spending $45,875 to support Sheldon as of Friday morning.
“At this point with such close margins, every competitive race puts partisan control (of the Senate) in the balance. Our focus is getting as many pro-business candidates elected. The partisan control will take care of itself,” Davis said.
Davis described the race as “competitive” and said it in many ways is “being treated as a general election. So we want to do everything we can.” Like Connor and Eliason, Davis did not point to any one vote by Sheldon as key or emblematic, and all three said Sheldon has a long record of supporting business at the Legislature.
Sheldon’s campaign has raised $229,063 and spent $157,590, and his larger donors read like a who’s-who list of interest groups at the Capitol that run from insurers, pharmaceutical companies, and oil companies to railroads.
Although Sheldon insists he is a Democrat, he has voted with majority Republicans in the Senate on major budget and policy bills the past two years.
Bowling, who has spent $68,084, sent a mailer to voters recently that includes a line: “Don’t be fooled! Irene Bowling is the only REAL Democrat running for state senator!”
The Democratic challenger got an apparent boost from Thurston Democrats, who gave $10,500 to her campaign Tuesday. (Senate Republicans say they think that money came from the $65,000 that spirit channeler JZ Knight donated to the county Democrats earlier this year. They issued a news release Friday that called on Bowling to give back the money because of racist comments Knight made while channeling Ramtha a few years ago about Mexicans and others in well-documented videos.)
Sheldon has easily won his last three elections in the conservative-leaning district that has swung to either party, but Eliason said no one wants to take the race for granted. He noted that moderate Democratic Sen. Jean Berkey of Everett was defeated in 2010 in the state’s top-two primary when “a lot of people took for granted she would get re-elected. … That was a good lesson for the business community and folks that want to support moderate pro-business people.’’
Candidates to the left and right of Berkey moved forward and Democrat Nick Harper won in the general election that year.
Enterprise Washington’s PAC isn’t just supporting Sheldon in the primary with independent expenditures. It also is backing Republican Monique Trudnowski, who has drawn the second-most independent expenditures at just under $80,000. She is running in a crowded field of five candidates in the 28th District that includes Lakewood and parts of Tacoma, and Davis said Trudnowski has a “fantastic story” about pulling herself up economically.