The last time Washington voters cast their ballots for president, Democrats controlled both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office.
Since then, the party has lost control of the state Senate and suffered enough defeats that Democrats are only one seat away from losing their majority in the state House.
Now Democrats are planning a legislative comeback in the Evergreen state, and pinning their hopes on the divisiveness of the Republican presidential nominee, real estate magnate Donald Trump.
“Just looking at this Republican convention and their platform, I think that truly damages them all the way down the ticket,” said state Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, noting “how racist and misogynistic Trump has become” in the months leading up to last week’s Republican National Convention.
Republicans are quick to point out that they’ve gained legislative seats during the past two presidential election cycles, and that Washington’s tendency to lean left in presidential contests doesn’t always translate into a rejection of Republican candidates in local legislative races.
Just looking at this Republican convention and their platform, I think that truly damages them all the way down the ticket.
Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island
GOP leaders think they have the potential not only to strengthen their hold on the state Senate, but also take over the state House, even with Trump as their party’s standard bearer.
“We gained seats in 2008 and 2012 when Barack Obama won the state overwhelmingly. It didn’t seem to matter,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
“A lot of the people who want to talk about Trump as a problem don’t want to talk about the issues this state is facing,” he said.
Still, voters should expect to see many statewide, congressional and local candidates try to distance themselves from Trump and his policies this year, said longtime independent pollster Stuart Elway.
An April poll from Elway’s firm, Elway Research Inc., found that more than half of voters would be likely to vote against a congressional candidate who endorses Trump. Only 19 percent of poll respondents said they were more likely to vote for a pro-Trump candidate, while 55 percent of respondents said they were more likely to vote against that candidate — a net negative effect of 36 percentage points, Elway said.
An endorsement for presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was a negative in voters’ minds, too, but not to the same degree. About 29 percent of poll respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who endorses Clinton, while 38 percent said they would be more likely to vote against that candidate, for a net negative effect of 9 percentage points.
A lot of the people who want to talk about Trump as a problem don’t want to talk about the issues this state is facing.
State Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville
“A net minus 36 for Trump is certainly a warning shot,” Elway said, calling that “unsettling news” for Republicans.
“The local Republicans are going to run as, ‘I’m running for governor, I’m running for Legislature, I’m running for whatever it is. I’m not running for president, that doesn’t have anything to do with me.’ ”
At some levels, that’s already happening. Republican Chris Vance, who is taking on Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, denounced Trump several months ago, and Bill Bryant, the Republican candidate for governor, has declined to say whether or not he supports Trump, saying he’s focused on the governor’s race and not Washington, D.C.
It’s less clear whether “a so-called Trump effect” will be a key issue in lower-level races, such as for the Legislature, said Christian Sinderman, a Democratic political consultant in Seattle.
55% Poll respondents in April who said they would be less likely to vote for a congressional candidate who endorsed Trump
19%Poll respondents in April who said they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who endorsed Trump
-36% Net negative effect of supporting Trump on a congressional candidate, per Elway Poll
“Whether it is negative enough to make you vote against all Republicans is another story. That’s the great unknown of this election cycle,” Sinderman said, noting pundits have often been wrong in their predictions concerning Trump so far.
Republicans say they plan to win local races just as they have the past several years: By emphasizing local issues such as transportation, education and public safety, while making lots of personal contacts with voters, said Kevin Carns, executive director of the House Republican Organizational Committee, the House Republicans’ campaign arm.
The GOP wouldn’t need to win many seats to gain outright control of the Legislature. Republicans already control the state Senate 26-23, and need only two seats to win control of the state House.
Moving even a single seat over to the Republican column would force a tie in the chamber, creating a power-sharing arrangement that last occurred from 1999 to 2001.
38% Poll respondents in April who said they would be less likely to vote for a congressional candidate who endorsed Clinton
29% Poll respondents in April who said they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who endorsed Clinton
-9% Net negative effect of supporting Clinton on a congressional candidate, per Elway Poll
Republican leaders think they have at least that much in the bag, mainly due to an open seat in a South Sound district that straddles King and Pierce counties. Four candidates — three of them Republicans — are vying to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Chris Hurst in the 31st Legislative District, which includes Edgewood, Sumner, Lake Tapps, Bonney Lake, Enumclaw, Buckley, South Prairie, Wilkeson and part of Auburn.
“I absolutely see a scenario, given the data and the quality of our candidates, where we could pick up several seats,” Carns said. “And the 31st is definitely up at the top of that list.”
House Republicans are also looking to claim the seat formerly held by state Rep. Hans Dunshee, a Democrat who left to become a Snohomish County councilman, as well as unseat at least two Democratic incumbents, state Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place, and state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland.
But Democrats are going to try to make sure that doesn’t happen — partly by making connections between local candidates and the contentious presidential race.
In Pierce County’s suburban 28th Legislative District, for instance, Democrats plan to draw parallels between incumbent Republican Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, and Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
I think if the Democrats had run a wildly popular candidate of their own their might be some concern about that, but Hillary is just as despised as Donald is.
Brent Ludeman, executive director of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee
As governor, Pence has signed legislation limiting the ability of women to get an abortion, along with a religious freedom law that many said in its original form would have allowed business owners to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender individuals. As an attorney, O’Ban has defended pharmacists who had religious objections to providing certain types of birth control, and now serves as the senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group that opposes same-sex marriage.
In another competitive district — the 5th Legislative District in East King County — Democrats also will draw parallels between recent comments about Muslims made by state Rep. Jay Rodne, R-North Bend, and comments Trump has made about the dangers of letting Muslims enter the country.
In other races, the comparisons may be more subtle, but Democrats still see plenty of ways to drag down local Republican candidates by tying them to views held by Trump, said Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien and the chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee.
“I think we’ll talk about their shared position on the minimum wage, and their shared position on equal pay for women, and their shared position on tax cuts for the wealthy,” Fitzgibbon said. “We’ll talk about the issues they have in common, and I think we’ll be successful with that.”
Republicans, however, warn that Democrats may not get the high turnout they’re expecting in November, given some left-leaning voters’ lack of excitement over Clinton being the party’s nominee. Carns said Clinton’s unpopularity could benefit Republicans in some key districts, including Kilduff’s, where he said a preponderance of military voters have an especially negative view of the former secretary of state.
Brent Ludeman, the executive director of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, said he expects Clinton to hurt local Democratic candidates about as much as Trump will hurt local Republicans this year.
“I think if the Democrats had run a wildly popular candidate of their own there might be some concern about that, but Hillary is just as despised as Donald is,” Ludeman said. “We sort of see it as a wash.”
RACES TO WATCH
Democrats and Republicans are focused on these races to help decide control of the state House and state Senate this year. In crowded races, the Aug. 2 primary will decide which two candidates advance to the November general election. Many of the races in contention are in the South Sound.
28th Legislative District: Republicans are working to unseat state Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place, who narrowly won her seat in in a close race in 2014. Republican Michael Winkler, a retired Army officer and former teacher, is challenging Kilduff in the 28th Legislative District, as is Paul Wagemann, the Republican candidate Kilduff defeated two years ago.
But the suburban swing district is also one where Democrats think they can make inroads with voters. They’re setting their sights on unseating state Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, and state Rep. Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom. O’Ban faces a challenge from Democrat Marisa Peloquin, a former company commander of Army paratroopers, while Muri is up against Democrat Mari Leavitt, a deputy director for Pierce County’s community service programs. The district includes University Place, Fircrest, DuPont, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and parts of Tacoma and Lakewood.
31st Legislative District: The retirement of longtime Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, has sparked a flurry of interest in this district that includes parts of both King and Pierce counties. Three Republicans — brewery owner Pablo Monroy, former state lawmaker Phil Fortunato, and Enumclaw City Councilman Morgan Irwin — are looking to claim Hurst’s seat. Meanwhile, Democrat Lane Walthers, a firefighter, is looking to keep the seat in Democratic hands.
30th Legislative District: Democrats see opportunities in this district, which straddle sKing and Pierce counties and includes Federal Way, Algona, Pacific, Milton, Des Moines and part of Auburn. Incumbent Republican state Rep. Linda Kochmar, R-Federal Way, is up against Democrat Mike Pellicciotti, a former King County prosecutor who now works for the attorney general’s office. Meanwhile, state Rep. Teri Hickel, R-Federal Way, faces a challenge from Kristine Reeves, who works as director of economic development for the state Department of Commerce’s military and defense sector.
35th Legislative District: While most districts in the Olympia area aren’t key to the battle for control of the Legislature, Fitzgibbon said Democrats are targeting Republican Reps. Drew MacEwen and Dan Griffey in the 35th Legislative District, which encompasses parts of Kitsap, Mason and Thurston counties. MacEwen, R-Union, faces Democratic challenger Craig Patti, a Bremerton firefighter. Meanwhile, Griffey — a Republican from Allyn — is up against Irene Bowling, a piano teacher from Bremerton who previously mounted an unsuccessful campaign against state Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat who caucuses with Senate Republicans.
26th Legislative District: Incumbent state Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, is defending his House seat against former state Rep. Larry Seaquist, a Democrat who previously served in the same district. House Speaker Frank Chopp recruited Seaquist last-minute to bolster Democrats’ chances of winning the seat. Another Democrat, Alec Matias, is also seeking to unseat Young this year.
44th Legislative District: Republicans like their chances to win this seat, which was recently vacated when state Rep. Hans Dunshee, a Democrat, moved to the Snohomish County Council. The appointed caretaker for the seat, state Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, is being challenged by Janice Huxford, a Lake Stevens planning commissioner who co-owns a roofing business.
45th Legislative District: Republicans are targeting state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, with GOP challenger Ramiro Valderrama, the deputy mayor of Sammamish.
5th Legislative District: Republicans are looking to strengthen their hold on the state Senate by ousting state Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah. Mullet will face stiff competition from state Rep. Chad Magendanz, an Issaquah Republican. Magendanz’s old House seat is also in play, with Republicans looking to claim it with Paul Graves, and Democrats hoping that former congressional candidate Darcy Burner or Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson will win it for them.
The race for the other House seat in the district, currently held by state Rep. Jay Rodne, R-North Bend, could also get contentious, as Democrats may bring up controversial statements Rodne made about Muslims last year to try and encourage voters to replace Rodne with Democrat Jason Ritchie. In Facebook posts after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Rodne called Islam “incompatible with western civilization” and said Muslims were “brutal barbarians.”