Washington state looks like it will be in for more years of a divided state government, despite early results that left some legislative races too close to call.
Control of Washington’s Legislature appeared to remain split between the parties Tuesday, as early election results showed Democrats retaining their hold on the state House and Republicans looking as if they would successfully defend their conservative majority in the state Senate.
Continued division at the Capitol would set the stage for another contentious year in 2017, when lawmakers are under a court order to finalize a plan to fully fund public schools.
Lawmakers have been unable to come up with a plan to solve school-funding problems outlined in the McCleary case and have a mandate from the state Supreme Court to finish the job by 2018.
In recent years, split control at the Capitol has forestalled Democratic proposals to impose new taxes on capital gains and carbon emissions, while prolonging budget debates in which Republicans have sought to boost public-school funding without new revenue sources.
Tuesday’s election results didn’t look as if they’d give either party much of an edge in that debate, even as some races in the state House remained close.
Democrats appeared to gain at least one seat in the House, as well as in the Senate, but without changing the majority in either chamber.
If Tuesday’s results hold, Republicans would control the Senate 25-24, with the aid of one maverick Democrat, Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, who caucuses with the GOP. Meanwhile, Democrats would increase their House majority to at least 51-47.
Democrats think they may pick up additional seats as well in races that were too close to call Tuesday night, said state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, who is the chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee. Those potential Democratic pickups included two close battles with Republican incumbents in King County’s 5th Legislative District, he said.
“The only question now is how much we’ll gain,” Fitzgibbon said Tuesday.
Republicans, meanwhile, said enough races were close Tuesday night that Republicans could come back and possibly create a 49-49 tie in the state House, which would force a power-sharing arrangement in the Legislature’s lower chamber that last existed from 1999 to 2001.
That would require a reversal of Republican fortunes in the 30th Legislative District, where two incumbent Republicans were losing to Democratic challengers Tuesday.
In the suburban district, which includes Federal Way, Algona, Pacific, Milton, Auburn and Des Moines, Republican state Rep. Teri Hickel of Federal Way was behind Democrat Kristine Reeves, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray who now works for the state Department of Commerce.
Meanwhile, Republican state Rep. Linda Kochmar of Federal Way was falling to Democratic challenger Mike Pellicciotti, an assistant attorney general and former King County deputy prosecutor.
State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm and co-chairman of the House Republican Organizational Committee, said he suspects Hickel may come back and win. Republicans also could pick up a seat in the 19th Legislative District, where Democrat Teresa Purcell had only a slight lead over Republican Jim Walsh in early returns, he said.
“It didn’t used to be true, but Republican votes come in late,” Wilcox said Tuesday. “History would indicate that.”
Also on Tuesday, Republicans laid claim to an open seat in the 31st District, which includes Auburn, Edgewood, Sumner, Lake Tapps, Bonney Lake, Enumclaw, Buckley, South Prairie, Wilkeson and Carbonado.
In the right-leaning district, former state lawmaker Phil Fortunato of Auburn was comfortably ahead of independent Democrat Lane Walthers, a longtime firefighter and captain with East Pierce Fire & Rescue.
Elsewhere in the South Sound, incumbent lawmakers were posting election-night leads.
In the 26th Legislative District, state Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, was defeating his former seatmate Larry Seaquist, a Democrat who was fighting to return to the Legislature after a two-year hiatus. Seaquist, a retired naval commander who served eight years in the state House, was far behind Young in early returns.
In the same district, state Rep. Michelle Caldier — the Port Orchard Republican who unseated Seaquist two years ago — was fending off Democratic challenger Randy Spitzer, who lives in Gig Harbor and is the executive director of a choral group.
Around Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Democratic state Rep. Christine Kilduff of University Place was well ahead of Paul Wagemann, a Clover Park School Board member, in Pierce County’s 28th Legislative District.
Meanwhile, Kilduff’s seatmate — state Rep. Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom — was leading Mari Leavitt, a University Place resident who serves as deputy director of Pierce County Community Connections.
In the area’s most-closely watched state Senate race, incumbent Republican Sen. Steve O’Ban of Tacoma was winning his re-election bid against Democrat Marisa Peloquin, a colonel in the Army Reserve.
Key Senate races elsewhere were a mixed bag.
In King County, Democrat Lisa Wellman, the managing director of a software company, was defeating incumbent state Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, in the 41st Legislative District, causing the Democrats to gain a seat in the Legislature’s upper chamber.
In another hotly contested race, state Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, was holding off a challenge from Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, in the 5th Legislative District.
It looked as if Republicans would prevail in the contest to replace retiring state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, in the 17th District. There, former Democratic state Rep. Tim Probst of Vancouver was far behind state Rep. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver.