Republicans and their allies are outspending their rivals in the contest to control the Washington state Senate.
Democrats may have the most generous ally — environmentalist Tom Steyer, with his well-publicized donation of more than $1 million to their cause. But the other side has kept up with help from hundreds of thousands of dollars each from real estate agents, homebuilders and a national GOP group.
With so-called independent expenditures at a virtual draw, fundraising by the candidates themselves could be decisive. And Republican-backed candidates in the top races have managed to outraise their opponents, aided by the power of incumbency.
All told, more than $10 million has been reported spent so far on Senate races — most of it going to just a handful of battlegrounds.
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The stakes are high. Democrats need to pick up just two seats to regain full control in Olympia by taking back the Senate from the GOP-heavy Majority Coalition Caucus. But while Democrats and allies have plowed nearly $3 million into the five biggest-spending races, the coalition and supporters have spent 25 percent more, $3.7 million.
That’s according to the most recent spending reports. But with millions more sitting in the coffers of candidates and groups ready for last-minute deployment, the balance of spending could change.
Out-of-state interests are heavily involved. Most prominent is Steyer, who aims to build legislative majorities that support Gov. Jay Inslee’s agenda of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
National groups helping Senate Republicans include those tied to Farmers Insurance and tobacco companies Reynolds American and Altria Group. The Republican State Leadership Committee, which funds down-ballot GOP candidates, provided the most to the Senate effort at $400,000.
The Leadership Committee’s top contributors include Reynolds, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Koch Industries, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
If the Koch brothers who run the industrial company are often cast as villains by Democrats, their fellow billionaire Steyer is starting to fill the same role for Republicans. Their candidates complain that a retired hedge fund founder from San Francisco has no business spending vast amounts in Washington elections.
That focus frustrates Democrats, who argue the same could be said about pharmaceutical or oil companies on the other side.
“I kind of find it disingenuous that the Republicans go after Steyer on this yet ... they’re far outpacing our candidates and our caucus in raising that out-of-state special interest money,” said Adam Bartz, executive director of Senate Democrats’ campaign arm.
Brent Ludeman, the executive director of Senate Republicans’ campaign operation, said companies that donate have operations or customers in Washington, unlike Steyer. And there are more of them.
“Most of the time (we are) going to a company or an association and asking them for five or 10 thousand and doing that hundreds of times, whereas the other side has got one big sugar daddy,” he said.
Ludeman noted that Democrats also have support from unions, environmental groups and others, and said he suspects last-minute spending will tilt toward those groups.
But he said that if Republicans do have an advantage, it’s because they have a strong fundraising operation and understood they needed to be prepared for Steyer, who funded attacks on Sen. Jan Angel last year.
This year, his money is helping Democrats in three places: Pierce County, where Rep. Tami Green of Lakewood is taking on Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma; King County’s Eastside, where Matt Isenhower is challenging Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond; and in Whatcom County, where Seth Fleetwood is up against Sen. Doug Erickson, R-Ferndale.
Those three races are getting the lion’s share of the overall spending along with Democrat Irene Bowling’s challenge of Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, in Mason, Thurston and Kitsap counties; and South King County, where the contest is between Federal Way candidates Shari Song and Mark Miloscia, a Democrat-turned Republican former state representative.
More than 64 percent of the money for Senate races has been spent in those five battleground districts, even though combined they are home to just 1 in 10 Washington voters.
The four Republicans led by wide margins in the August primary, while Sheldon finished behind Bowling and ahead of a Republican third candidate.
The GOP-backed candidates’ primary performance, making a flip in control of the Senate a long shot, likely helps explain their edge in fundraising. Another factor: All are incumbents or former incumbents with head starts on their opponents.