Politics & Government

Democrat ahead big in state Senate race with fate of legislative control in balance

Democrat Manka Dhingra, center, running for State Senator for the 45th district, is congratulated by supporters after she takes the lead after early returns on election night, Nov. 7, 2017, in Woodinville, Wash. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times via AP)
Democrat Manka Dhingra, center, running for State Senator for the 45th district, is congratulated by supporters after she takes the lead after early returns on election night, Nov. 7, 2017, in Woodinville, Wash. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times via AP) AP

The era of divided government at the state Capitol is likely over.

Early ballot returns Tuesday show Democrat Manka Dhingra with a sizable lead over her Republican opponent Jinyoung Lee Englund in a blockbuster Washington state Senate race that will decide the balance of power in the Legislature.

On Tuesday, Dhingra had roughly 55.4 percent of the vote to Englund’s 44.5 percent.

That margin puts Dhingra on track to win the election in Seattle’s Eastside suburbs, despite thousands of votes that still need to be counted over the next few days due to Washington’s mail-in system. Democrats hailed the lead as a sure sign Democrats would control both chambers of Washington’s Legislature for the first time since 2012.

“With your help, I hope to build a state government that empowers every single person in Washington to feel like they have a voice,” said Dhingra, addressing a crowd of supporters in Woodinville after the first vote tally was announced.

Englund didn’t concede Tuesday night, posting on Twitter “there are still a lot of votes left to be counted.”

Republicans currently rule the state Senate by one vote with the help of a conservative Democrat, while Democrats have a majority in the House and hold the governor’s office.

A victory by Dhingra in the 45th Legislative District would give Democrats a one-vote majority in the Senate, representing a shift in power at the Capitol. Democrats have clashed for years with Senate Republicans over legislative priorities, forcing heated budget battles, overtime sessions and, eventually, compromise.

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, celebrated on Tuesday.

“We've had good bipartisan successes in Olympia over the past few years and that will continue,” he said in a statement. “I also look forward to action on some issues that have stalled for too long.”

Republicans have used the party’s Senate control effectively. One example: the two-year budget approved earlier this year, which contained billions in new state spending on education aimed at meeting the 2012 Supreme Court’s McCleary order. The spending plan, approved mere hours before government shutdown, is largely based on a property-tax blueprint championed by Senate Republicans.

Democrats this year did get more spending out of Republicans than the GOP had hoped, avoiding cuts to social services and pouring money into K-12 schools.

But Democratic ideas for bankrolling budgets — such as a capital gains tax and a tax on carbon emissions — have been swatted away for years by the GOP.

The chances of those taxes being passed improve with a Democrat majority in the Senate, perhaps with a reduction in other taxes. The same goes for Democratic-led efforts to pass certain new gun regulations, legislation to boost access to contraceptives and other environmental priorities.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler on Tuesday said “watch your pockets” if Democrats win.

“They’re coming for new and higher taxes. It’s just a given,” he said.

Sharon Nelson, the Senate’s Democratic leader, had a different view.

“We have been in gridlock for the last five years and I think under Democratic control in the senate we’ll see that we can work together again,” she said.

Nelson said Democrats could also use newfound power to fight against the policies of President Donald Trump. She said implementing Democratic strategies on health care and immigration could buffer Washington from some of the president’s decisions.

If Dhingra does hold her lead and wins the 45th District race, there is some skepticism as to how much of their agenda Democrats could actually accomplish.

Lawmakers will convene in January for a 60-day supplemental budget session, reserved usually for tweaks to the two-year budget approved the year before. Looming just ahead is a far larger round of elections in the fall of 2018, potentially mixing up control of the Legislature again before 2019, when another two-year budget will be written.

Chris Vance, former chairman of the state GOP who no longer identifies as Republican, said there could be a tug-of-war between more liberal and moderate Democrats in the Legislature. The more progressive wing of the party might push for a grand agenda at breakneck speed, while the more middle-ground lawmakers might pump the brakes.

Centrists might say, “‘If we go too far to the left, we’re going to lose seats and lose our majority again,’” Vance said.

Nelson said that Senate Democrats will “have to be pragmatic” but will also look at progressive legislation.

In the event Englund pulls ahead and wins, Republicans would keep substantial political leverage to fight for issues such as a resolution to the rural water rights debate following the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision. The court order has put new regulations in place that effectively halted some rural construction and left landowners without the ability to drill small wells.

Senate Republicans have refused to pass a construction budget that has bipartisan support before a deal is reached on legislation to address Hirst.

Even with a Democratic majority in the Senate, bonds necessary to implement the construction budget need 60 percent approval in the Senate, giving Republicans some ongoing political leverage.

The stakes of the 45th District race has made it the most expensive legislative race in state history. Englund and Dhingra have each raised more than $1.4 million dollars, according to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. Independent expenditures by political action committees for and against the two candidates have topped $5.8 million.

The special election is being held to find a replacement for former Republican budget writer Andy Hill of Redmond. Hill died in 2016 of lung cancer.

In another state Senate special election, Republican Sen. Phil Fortunato had a large lead over Democrat Michelle Rylands on Tuesday. Fortunato’s Auburn-area 31st Legislative District contains parts of Pierce and King counties. Fortunato was appointed to the seat in January after Pam Roach left the Legislature following her election to the Pierce County Council.

Election observers had predicted that race to swing in Fortunato’s favor based on the Republican-leaning history of voters in the district.

Republican Rep. Morgan Irwin of Enumclaw also had a safe lead over Democrat Nate Lowry in a 31st District House race. Irwin was appointed to the seat when Fortunato, then a newly elected representative, joined the Senate.

Even with Fortunato and Irwin’s likely victories, Republicans’ political relevance in Olympia appears set to take a hit.

“Even though it’s one seat, majority means everything in a legislative body,” Vance said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein