Washington Democrats celebrate ‘an embarrassment of riches’ from primary election results

A ballot box in Pierce County.
A ballot box in Pierce County. phaley@thenewstribune.com

By the time Democrats digested early primary returns Tuesday evening, party leaders had shifted their mindset from targeting a few districts in search of modest gains at the Legislature to wondering if they could force a landslide come November.

A muscular showing had the Democrats topping Republicans in vote totals for 20 seats currently held by the GOP — 16 in the House and four in the Senate. Republicans technically won three of those primaries, but multiple Democrats tallied more than 50 percent in aggregate in each race, putting the GOP in a losing position.

Democrats control the House by a 50-48 majority at the moment and hold a 25-24 voting advantage in the Senate, meaning Republicans are now staring down solid Democratic control in Olympia if the general election holds the same trends.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, a Burien Democrat who chairs the House Democratic Campaign Committee, called the results “an embarrassment of riches.”

“I expected that we’d have a good night tonight, but there were races that were not remotely on our radar that now are,” he said in an interview late Tuesday.

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox tried to douse the Democratic excitement, arguing that ballots counted later in the week as a result of Washington’s mail-in voting system would improve the outlook for the GOP. Wilcox said he expects the late votes to trend Republican.

“But we have some work to do,” he added, foreshadowing what could be a bumpy road ahead.

Seats that now look promising for Democrats dot the state’s electoral map, ranging as far north as Whatcom County and even east of the mountains, where Rep. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, was narrowly losing a Senate primary to Democrat Jessa Lewis.

Democratic victories also washed into the South Sound.

Democrat Emily Randall had a narrow lead on Republican Marty McClendon in a Gig Harbor-area Senate race. For comparison, outgoing Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, won her 2014 primary by nearly 14 points.

Connie FitzPatrick, a Democrat running for a House seat in the 26th Legislative District, was also beating incumbent Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, by a tiny margin. Young lost support to an intraparty challenger, but total Republican votes in the race still totaled less than 50 percent Tuesday.

In the Federal Way-area 30th Legislative District, Republican Mark Miloscia failed to clear the coveted 50 percent bar in his race against two Democrats. Claire Wilson, Federal Way School Board president, will move on to the general election against the Republican.

Incumbent Rep. Dick Muri of Steilacoom was trailing Democrat Mari Leavitt in the 28th Legislative District and Republican Maia Espinoza was far behind Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-Lakewood, in a race Republicans had hoped could turn a blue seat red.

Even Drew MacEwen, a Union Republican in the 35th District that stretches from Thurston County north along the Hood Canal and to Seabeck, was behind Democrat David Daggett. MacEwen won his 2016 primary with ease.

House elections in the Puyallup-area 25th Legislative District were more convoluted since one race had four candidates and another had an Independent running alongside a Democrat and Republican. But early votes show Democrats either close behind or slightly ahead of Republicans in the primaries, representing a considerable shift.

Republicans have crushed Democrats in recent election cycles there. President Donald Trump won the district in 2016, too.

Overall, Pierce County had yielded Republican victories recently, particularly with the election of Bruce Dammeier as Pierce County Executive.

So what changed?

Alex Hays, a Republican political consultant in the South Sound, cited unhappiness with Trump.

“This is obviously a reaction to what’s happening at the federal level,” Hays said Tuesday.

Fitzgibbon had a similar answer. He said that Democrats were able to attract stronger candidates more easily than in years past thanks to dislike of the president. While Democratic candidates are pushing local issues, the national landscape is fueling strong support for his party, Fitzgibbon added.

“I think that voters in Washington and across the country have seen what Republican governance looks like over the past year and a half,” he said.

Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, seized on the idea of Trump backlash on Twitter on Wednesday, needling Trump by inviting him to visit Washington and campaign for Republicans.

“I urge @wagop to join me in this invite,” Inslee said. “I’m sure they want to make clear to voters they stand with the President and his agenda.”

Moving ahead, Hays said Republicans will need to steer conversation back to local policy to remind voters “of how badly Democrats govern the state.”

Wider Democratic control at the Legislature could pave the way for the party to pass long-sought measures such as a new tax on capital gains and restrictions on guns.

Fitzgibbon said Democrats still “have a lot more work to do to” to make sure their candidates in competitive races actually come out on top in the November election. But he said it’s promising that there are more elections where a win is within reach.

“We have more races to go on the offensive than we’ve ever had before — by a lot,” he said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein