Politics & Government

Outside money flowing in to help Democrat challenge for local state Senate seat

Republican incumbent Phil Fortunato, left, and Democratic challenger Michelle Rylands are vying for the District 31 state Senate seat.
Republican incumbent Phil Fortunato, left, and Democratic challenger Michelle Rylands are vying for the District 31 state Senate seat. Courtesy

An otherwise sleepy race for state Senate in the Auburn area has seen an uptick in political spending recently, just as ballots were sent out to voters last week.

A political action committee called Mainstream Voters of Washington has spent $31,300 on mail advertising and other campaign material since Oct. 16 opposing Republican Sen. Phil Fortunato of Auburn, according to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, which tracks campaign spending.

That cash is the largest jolt of outside money in the race so far, moving it to the No. 2 rank in independent spending in legislative elections this year. PACs making independent expenditures can’t coordinate with campaigns and don’t have limits on how much money to spend.

Fortunato, an environmental consultant, is being challenged by Democrat Michelle Rylands, a 911 dispatcher and PTA leader who lives in Auburn. Fortunato was appointed to the Senate seat in January to replace Pam Roach, who left the Legislature to join the Pierce County Council.

The Mainstream Voters PAC opposing Fortunato is funded by cash from the campaign arm of state Senate Democrats and by another PAC with large contributions from unions, environmental groups, Democratic political groups and wealthy donors such as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The spending pales in comparison to the money flowing to the marquee Senate race this year in Seattle’s Eastside suburbs. The competitive election in the 45th Legislative District there has drawn more than $4.7 million in independent expenditures for and against the two candidates.

Before last week there had only been some modest independent spending on positive advertisements in the 31st Legislative District. The district includes parts of Pierce and King counties.

Roughly $12,200 has been spent in independent expenditures to support Fortunato, although nearly all of the money came around the July primary.

About $11,000 of that was from a PAC funded in large part by Republican political organizations and pro-business, pro-industry groups such as the Building Industry Association and tobacco company, Altria. Another $900 came from the Gun Owners Action League.

Only $1,335 has been spent on independent expenditures in support of Rylands, all from Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest.

The Rylands and Fortunato campaigns also have raised the third and fourth most money, respectively, of any candidate in a 2017 legislative race except for 45th district contestants Jinyoung Lee Englund and Manka Dhingra. Englund is a Republican and Dhingra is a Democrat.

Rylands has raised $144,891, according to the PDC, mainly from individual contributions, Democratic political groups and unions. Fortunato has raised $126,609, largely from industry PACs, businesses and individual donors.

Both races have implications for control of state government. Republicans currently have a one-vote majority in the Senate with the help of one conservative Democrat who caucuses with the GOP. Democrats have small lead in the House and hold the governor’s office.

If either Democrat wins, then Democrats will have power over all of state government. If Fortunato and Englund both win, then the GOP will keep a toehold on the Senate.

Political operatives and observers paint Fortunato’s seat as safely Republican.

Democrats have held a representative seat in the district as recently as 2016, but Fortunato won his primary by nearly 17 points, getting 58.4 percent of the vote. President Donald Trump also won about 50 percent of the vote in the district last year, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 42 percent.

The 45th district race is thought to be much more competitive.

Dhingra won her primary with 51.52 percent of the vote compared to 41.46 percent for Englund. Independent Parker Harris got 7 percent of the vote. Residents in the 45th District are choosing a replacement for Republican Andy Hill, who died of cancer last year.

The general election is on Nov. 7.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein