On a recent doorbelling trip near Saghalie Park in Federal Way, Republican state Rep. Teri Hickel talked to voters about lowering the cost of local taxes and improving area schools — issues she says are at at the top of her constituents’ priority lists.
It was a similar scene for Democrat Kristine Reeves, Hickel’s challenger in a 30th Legislative District state House election, when she went door-to-door near Dash Point State Park last week. Reeves commiserated with people about the burden of expensive college tuition. She talked about where her two young kids will go to school, the public school system in general and more.
Both women were out hoping to win over voters in the closely watched Federal Way-area district where two House races might determine the balance of power in the Legislature.
The 30th District, which stretches east to Algona and parts of Auburn, is historically one of precious few swing districts each party hopes to win to control the House and Senate and dictate state policy.
Republicans own a 26-23 voting advantage in Washington’s Senate. They’d like to retake control of House, where Democrats have a 50-48 lead. Losing either Republican incumbent in the 30th District House seats would complicate that plan.
Yet that’s exactly what could happen if the November election mirrors the close results of this month’s primary, which put Democrats out front and the Federal Way area in the political spotlight once again.
Reeves has a 42-vote lead over incumbent Hickel, which is the smallest margin of any swing House race in the state. Federal Way Democrat and state Assistant Attorney General Mike Pellicciotti topped incumbent Republican Rep. Linda Kochmar of Federal Way by about 1,000 votes in the district’s other House primary. All four will move on to November’s general election.
The district’s Senate seat held by Republican Mark Miloscia is not up for election this year.
“It’s critical, everybody knows that,” state Rep. J.T. Wilcox said of winning in the 30th District. Wilcox, from Yelm, is chairman of the House Republican Organizational Committee.
“Some of the biggest legislative campaigns in the history of Washington have been in the 30th over the last few years,” he said.
A House divided
Republicans rule the roost in the Federal Way district right now, but historically the area’s two House seats have been split, giving the district its battleground mythology.
The GOP held Hickel’s seat from 1978 until 2012, when the late Rep. Roger Freeman, a Democrat, beat Milton Republican Katrina Asay.
Former Democratic Rep. Mark Miloscia held the other House seat from 1998 until 2012, when Kochmar took over. Miloscia flipped to the GOP and won a spot in the state Senate in 2014.
Democratic Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon from Burien said the 30th District is “by far the most Democratic district” in the state currently represented entirely by Republicans.
Fitzgibbon, chairman for the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said presidential election years favor Democrats.
We have a lot of voters in the 30th District — young voters, people of color, people who are at the lower end of the economic spectrum — that really turn out to vote once every four years.
Democratic Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon
“We have a lot of voters in the 30th District — young voters, people of color, people who are at the lower end of the economic spectrum — that really turn out to vote once every four years,” he said.
Some recent presidential-year elections back up Fitzgibbon’s claim.
Nearly as many votes have been tallied so far in the 2016 primary won by Reeves than in all of Hickel’s 2015 November election victory over Democrat Carol Gregory.
More than double the votes were cast in Freeman’s 10-point victory in 2012 than in Hickel’s 2015 win. Freeman was re-elected in 2014, days after he died, prompting the special election the next year.
But Republicans have had success in recent presidential election years, too.
Kochmar narrowly won in 2012, before coasting to re-election in 2014. She is trailing Pellicciotti in her 2016 primary.
“I’m quite sure that those are going to be the most hotly contested races in the state in terms of House legislative races this year,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox said Hickel and Kochmar’s ground game will put them over the top in November.
We’ve always had to win it on the street.
Republican Rep. J.T. Wilcox, House Minority Floor Leader
“We believe Republicans have almost always had significant disadvantage in campaign dollars in House races,” he said. “We’ve always had to win it on the street.”
Neither Hickel or Reeves have brought in loads of money compared to other House races.
Reeves has raised almost $56,000, but has spent close to $46,000, according to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission which tracks campaign spending.
Hickel has raised about $96,000 and spent only around $33,000.
Political groups have spent a reasonably high $29,000 in support of Reeves and around $11,000 against Hickel. No independent expenditures have been made in opposition to Reeves, according to the PDC, and only about $4,000 has been spent in favor of Hickel.
Wilcox and Fitzgibbon said the close primary results should drive an increase in donations and expenditures.
Winning this year
Hickel and Reeves said they aren’t campaigning on control of the Legislature.
“I’m here to serve the district,” Hickel. “I don’t really hold myself accountable for being the change of party, whenever that is.”
Reeves, a Federal Way resident and first-time candidate for the Legislature, said she’s only worried about “the people that I’m meeting at the door.”
“I realize that other people are trying to make this about the state of the majority, and yes that’s all important logically, I get that,” Reeves said. “But voters in this district are mostly concerned with ‘Is my life better today than it was yesterday?’” she said.
Voters in the 30th come with their own personal priorities along with opinions on broader, statewide issues. Lowering commute times is crucial for people in the district that straddles Pierce and King County, Reeves and Hickel said.
Many residents drive to Tacoma or Seattle for work. Nearly half of the people in Federal Way have commutes longer than 30 minutes. Only about one third of average Washington commuters take more than 30 minutes to get to work, according to Census Data from 2014.
“If I as a parent find that the hardest thing for me is not being able to get home to my kids at the end of the day, it’s a big deal,” Reeves said.
Public safety and school quality are other district voter concerns they both identified in interviews.
Reeves is the state’s director of Economic Development for the Military and Defense Sector. She’s also served for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray doing work in the South Sound, the Olympic Peninsula and on statewide veterans affairs.
Before running for office, Hickel spent 12 years at the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce working to support businesses, as well as 15 years at an organization that trains people in leadership skills.
Each is trying to convince voters they’re the best fit for the 30th District, not the deciding vote of a possible majority in the Legislature.
“Of course there’s pressure,” Hickel said. “But again, my job is my job and that is to be a state representative of the 30th District. I don’t count myself as being the pivotal person at all.”