If Washington Democrats thought the primary election would show how close they were to retaking control of the state Senate, they were left disappointed. Tuesday’s election results, instead, showed Republicans how close they are to retaining a coalition majority in the state Senate, which is poised to again block Democrats’ and Gov. Jay Inslee’s moves on taxes for schools, a transportation finance package and the environment.
Maverick Sen. Tim Sheldon, who campaigns as a lone wolf Democrat and votes with Republicans, was surviving attacks from candidates at both political ends. Meanwhile, Republican members of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus had near-stellar performances against challengers in a handful of races where Democrats have hoped for breakthroughs.
Among the Democrats’ key targets was Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, who was easily fending off Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood, by double-digit margins.
Republicans have held a 26-23 edge in the Senate, helped by two crossover Democrats including Sheldon and another, Rodney Tom, who retired and will see his 48th District seat likely taken by a harder-line Democrat, Cyrus Habib. After Tuesday, Democrats are not giving up but they are hard-pressed to show where they’ll pick up two seats, while Republicans appear eager to defend their positions.
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“We had a very, very good primary and we’re going to continue to work, because our goal is to retain the state Senate and gain seats in the state House,’’ state Republican Party chair Susan Hutchison said last week. “We are very encouraged.’’
Democrats say they are keeping about five Republican-held Senate seats in their sights, plus Sheldon’s seat in the 35th District that runs from Bremerton to Shelton and all the way to suburban neighborhoods on Olympia’s south side.
“We’re not shifting our focus. Obviously our expectations going into this primary were muted and realistic,” state Democratic Party chairman Jaxon Ravens said. “We were not surprised by the primary. We know we have a lot of work to be done.’’
Ravens said that change in turnout from the primary to the general is historically big and that can favor Democrats.
Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson of Maury Island said her caucus wants to motivate young voters and voters in communities of color about the Senate majority’s conservative bent, including its refusal to let an abortion measure up for a vote on the floor despite a majority of lawmakers in favor of it.
Nelson and Ravens both have hopes for Matt Isenhower, who remains about 8 percentage points behind Republican Sen. Andy Hill of Redmond in the 45th district. In another key race, Nelson said Democratic newcomer Shari Song hasn’t yet really been taking on party-switching Republican Mark Miloscia, who served a handful of terms from Federal Way in the 30th District. Lastly, Nelson says Green has been down in primaries before in the 28th before winning.
“We know it will be critical to get turnout in November. We were really pleased with Matt Isenhower’s results with high Republican turnout in the district,’’ Nelson said. “We are so optimistic. Irene Bowling has done a good job against Tim Sheldon. We would have preferred he didn’t make it through the primary. … We haven’t left a base uncovered. That took a lot of work to get there.
“The thing is, we know in primaries communities of color (people) don’t tend to vote. We also know millennials don’t vote. Those are our priorities and that’s where we’re going,’’ Nelson added.
But without a presidential candidate or U.S. Senate candidate on the ballot to help drive turnout, there is no getting around the odds stacked against Democratic victories in most seats they have targeted. Miloscia was up by 14 percentage points over Song, O’Ban by a dozen points over Green, Hill by 8 points over Isenhower, Doug Ericksen of Ferndale by nearly 14 points over Seth Fleetwood, Michael Baumgartner of Spokane up by 14 over Democrat Rich Cowan, and Jan Angel of Port Orchard up nearly 14 points over Democrat Judy Arbogast.
In the 35th, Bowling got just 35 percent of the vote to a little over 33 percent for Sheldon, and Sheldon thinks the other third of voters that went with Republican Travis Couture will mostly come his way.
In past elections, individual Democratic candidates have done better in the general election than in the primary, and Green is one of those. Two years ago, she garnered an extra 4 percentage-point share of the total vote in the general against Paul Wageman than she did against two Republicans in the primary. The same thing happened against Wageman in the 2010 general.
Republican campaign strategist Chris Vance, a former state GOP chairman, said one of the most shocking jumps in vote-share was two years ago when Democrat Monica Stonier of Vancouver added more than 4.5 percent — lifting her share of votes from less than half to a victory by a slim 139 votes.
The performance by Stonier and Green were among the exceptions to the rule of small gains by Democrats, and data compiled by the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, which shows an average Democratic gain of just 1.24 percent in House and Senate races that had just two candidates since 2008. An unscientific survey of 2010 and 2012 results by The Olympian and The News Tribune last week also found many races where Democrats picked up an extra 1 or 2 percentage points of the vote moving from the primary to the general election — but not gains like the Democrats need this year.
Moreover, some Democrats have lost ground. Democratic Rep. Kathy Haigh of Shelton saw her share of votes rise by a half-percent in 2010’s general election runoff against Republican Dan Griffey but fall by 1 percentage point against Griffey in 2012.
Vance, the political consultant said it is “almost unprecedented to come back” and overcome deficits of 4 to 10 percentage points. “We shouldn’t over-analyze this. The primary results are a rough poll,” he said.
Although control of the House is probably not in much question, Republicans are eyeing gains there — chipping away at Democrats’ 55-43 edge. Haigh’s seat is one of those in the GOP’s sights, and so is Stonier’s — as is the seat Green left to challenge O’Ban.