Over the last few years, the recent election trends in Washington State have gradually been favoring a Republican majority continuing in the Senate. They also appeared to favor Republicans to pick up a few more seats in the state house, as they have done every election year since 2006. However, the primary results were surprisingly disappointing to Republican observers, and the Democrats are delighted.
Recently, we covered a few statewide primary election results from Washington State. With Washington State’s balance of power in both the State Senate (slight Republican edge) and the State House (slight Democrat majority), most political eyes are on a variety of state legislative district races which could shift the balance. As always, with the continuing trickle of mail in ballots, some close results are unresolved. Despite this required warning, there are some results worth reviewing.
There are 49 state legislative districts. Each district sends two representatives and one senator to Olympia for the legislative session. Representatives must run for office every two years. State Senators run every four. Roughly half of the state’s senators are up for election each year. This article only covers a few of the more interesting races from Tuesday’s primary results.
5th Legislative District – leaning Republican, but Republicans are biting their nails
The 5th legislative district (Northeast King County– Issaquah) has been considered a swing district with the advantage trending slightly towards the Republicans. However, the Democrats have tended to field candidates with a moderate patina at times, and this has ensured some very competitive and costly races. The Democrats also have a history of some slimy, but effective political chicanery in this district with the now legendary bribe of Maple Valley resident and former Republican State Senator Cheryl Pflug (pronounced “Flug You”) with a late position on the Growth Management Hearings Board ($100k + per year including benefits) in 2012 at the last minute. She was able to drop out of the race without the Republicans having any warning or enough time to prepare someone else to run. This was the perfect opening for current incumbent Democrat Mark Mullet to win the seat, and it seemed to buy the Democrats another few years of State Senate control, until a few Democrats started caucusing with the Republicans. (see relevant stories linked at the end of this article).
While this may be business as usual in Olympia, and the Republican Party squawked a bit at the time, the evident moral of the story appears to be that bribery can be effective when judiciously applied. It might be corrupt and dishonest, but in Washington State it is perfectly legal. Pure political awesomesauce.
Four years have passed, and incumbent Mark Mullet is facing a very capable challenger in Chad Magendanz (think Hagendaz ice cream for both pronunciation, and the campaign sign font). Tuesdays results make nobody happy because the race is extremely close, a near tie at this point, leaning Democratic. This isn’t a strong position for an incumbent, but Chad Magendanz has won the state legislative seat in this district several times now. It is certain he was hoping for a more decisive result, particularly considering the fact he outspent the incumbent (although in hard dollars – Mullet spent the most this round).
Beyond Mark Mullet’s sordid start with state-level political office, he works hard to not offend anyone. He pretty much always goes with the Democratic flow in Olympia, he rides the current and tries to stay out of sight. On rare occasions, when it is safe, he is allowed to stray slightly from the orthodoxy of the Democratic Party line. This makes him a “moderate Democrat” in the state capital today, and while it is thin gruel, challenger Chad Magendanz must run a near perfect campaign to take out the incumbent.
Chad is a very capable candidate, good fundraiser, a military veteran, a Microsoft employee, and someone unafraid of challenging the status quo. Expect this race to blow through lots of money, thrive on independent expenditures, and if Magendanz manages to give Mullet a real haircut – the Republicans could pick up another seat, but after Tuesday, indications are that it will be a closely fought battle.
In the same district a state house seat is in play after being vacated by Magendanz’s race for the Senate. Tuesday’s results support the prediction that this will also be a serious battle as Republican Paul Graves also looks evenly matched against a very formidable, but extreme Democratic candidate – Darcy Burner. The Seattle Times stated Burner’s “…hyper partisan views do not fit the district’s centrist politics.” The Republicans need to retain this seat, and the Democrats would love to capture it. Another expensive battle in this district with real impacts on who controls the legislative agenda next year in Olympia.
31st Legislative District – Fortune smiles on Fortunato
Phil Forunato is likely to become the next Republican State legislator from the 31st District (Auburn). This was another swing district, and assuming Fortunato carries through for the official win in November, it will also be a Republican pickup as the seat had been occupied by Democrat Chris Hurst until he decided not to run again this year. This should come as no surprise to any serious political observer since Fortunato came very close to unseating Chris Hurst two years ago despite being outspent 15 to one. Fortunato is also a ferocious and innovative campaigner.
Phil Fortunato is no stranger to Olympia, and this won’t be his first State Capital rodeo. He was a former legislator representing the 47th Legislative District for a term in the late 90s. With such an impressive performance in 2014 against a Democrat incumbent, it was inexplicable that many establishment Republicans decided to engage against Fortunato in the primary by backing (at different times) one and then another Republican challenger – both of whom didn’t even come close to Fortunato’s final vote count. Even with three Republicans in the race, Phil Fortunato’s numbers were higher than the sacrificial Democrat candidate Lane Walthers. The Republican establishment will need to reach out and repair this relationship since it looks like they are going to be working with Fortunato for quite some time after November. The 31st District has become more Republican over the years, and the election this year just confirms the trend.
30th Legislative District – Republican white knuckles, serious battles
The 30th Legislative District (Federal Way) has been a source for good news to the Republican Party the last few election cycles. A formerly swing district has trended Republican. First, there was the election of Republican Linda Kochmar (former Federal Way Mayor) to the legislature in 2012 and reelected in 2014 to prove this was not a fluke. Then, the election of Teri Hickel during a special election in 2015 which was a massive political street brawl that pitted the worst the Democrat Party had to offer – a former Washington Education Association (WEA) union boss named Carol Gregory against Hickel. This was an off year election because the former Democrat State Legislator for that seat – Roger Freeman was elected after he died during the campaign. This meant that Gregory was appointed by the Democrats to fill this seat until the next November election cycle (last year), when she was forced to vacate the seat by the voters of the district.
To cap off this Republican progress in this district, the State Senator from this district was Mark Miloscia (current front runner for state Auditor), a former Democrat who switched parties and won election to the 30th State Senate seat in 2014 by a wide margin. The future has seemed bright for the Republican Party in this district. However, based on Tuesday’s primary numbers, there are storm clouds over Federal Way.
Both Kochmar and Hickel had less than stellar results in the recent primary – essentially tied with their challengers. This had to create some whiplash and a recalculation of where the House Republican Organizational Committee (HROC) funds are going to be spent. Just like the last two cycles, a ton of political dollars are going to drop in Federal Way this fall and both parties are going to be spending large here.
28th Legislative District – Wagemann vs. Kilduff redux
The 2016 general ballot for Position 2 in the 28th District (Southwest Pierce County) state representative’s seat will look just like the 2014 ballot options. Paul Wagemann spent less than $4,000 to ensure a place on the general ballot against Democrat incumbent Christine Kilduff (who spent $70,000 just to stay relevant). In 2014, Wagemann lost the race by a handful of votes, barely denying the Republicans a tie in the state house. Fortunately for the Republicans, this district has been trending more Republican over the past few election cycles with both Republican Senator O’Ban and Republican Representative Dick Muri coming ahead in their respective primary races on Tuesday. Democrat freshman incumbent Christine Kilduff appears weak based on her primary performance.
However, unfortunately for the Republicans, this is another district where intramural party political squabbles seem likely to sabotage their professed desire to a legislative majority. Bad blood and personality conflicts between the Republican establishment and candidate Paul Wagemann seems likely to continue the party suicide. The last two election cycles the Republican establishment has chosen to pick sides in this race during the primary – always supporting a candidate against Wagemann. In 2014, they even promoted negative attack ads intramurally, which probably didn’t help Wagemann in that very narrow loss in 2014. Once again, this year, the establishment Republicans chose to ignore Wagemann in the primary, outspend him, and promote a less well known candidate. Now they appear mystified when their chosen candidate doesn’t even get close – no matter how much money or support they get from the party.
Paul Wagemann has been successfully elected to the Clover Park School Board twice in this district and was recently elected to the Pierce County Charter Review Commission. Paul Wagemann is no lazy political campaigner. He has personally doorbelled this district more than any other candidate in recent times. He is a veteran and engaged in the community. People there know him, and the recent results bear this out – again. It would seem prudent that both sides bury the proverbial hatchet and find a way to constructively work towards a majority in the legislature, including this seat. This might be utopian thinking, but it is rational assuming the Republicans actually want a majority.
Fortunately for the Democratic Party slim majority, Republicans often act like they don’t want a majority and are frequently irrational when it comes to internal bickering and backstabbing, so barring a major kumbaya moment, Christine Kilduff is likely to limp across the finish line in November winning by default as the Republicans strive to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in this district – again.
17th District – Senate Surprise and Democrat Delight
When Senator Don Benton announced that he would not seek reelection to this seat in the 17th District (Clark County, Vancouver suburbs) , there were no illusions in either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party that this Senate seat was up for grabs. Senator Benton won a real squeaker of a race and his victory was only attained by the narrowest of margins, over the same Democrat, Tim Probst, who is running again this year.
However, there was a lot of excitement from Republican insiders about state legislator Lynda Wilson stepping up to run for this open Senate seat. She had already proved her mettle in a brutal 2014 election where she defeated a strong incumbent despite massive expenditures against her by government union special interests and others. Over $1 million was spent on this race in 2014 – much higher than normal for a state legislative seat. She has been effective in Olympia, and she came to political office directly through the grass roots. She is very popular, and she is a great fundraiser. Her opponent Tim Probst is a typical long-time politician and government employee who has made a lifetime career out of collecting government paychecks.
Based on Tuesday’s election results, with a few hundred votes separating them, the scales tip towards Wilson. However, this is anyone’s race in November. The Democrat Party has been eyeing this seat as a possible pickup in the state senate for many years. As an open seat it is very attractive. Nobody expected this would be a political cakewalk without a serious contest, but most political observers give Wilson the edge. As concerning as this race might be to the Republicans, at least both sides were prepared to fight. It still appears that Wilson should be able to retain this seat for the Republicans, but with these primary results to encourage the Democrats, they are likely to dump much more resources into the fight. Another local challenge to Wilson’s campaign is the poisonous divisions in the local Republican Party which show no signs of improving.
Other legislative races around the state worth watching
In the 10th Legislative District (Island County), incumbent Republican Senator Barbara Bailey had a fright on Tuesday with a closer than expected challenge from two Democrat opponents. While she still managed to keep her head above the 50% waterline, it is likely the Republican Party will need to toss some life rings of cash and active campaigning in that district to be certain. This probably wasn’t on anyone’s campaign plans for 2016 until after Tuesday’s results.
In the 19th Legislative District (Southwest Washington), James Walsh had a good showing coming out of a very divided primary for Position 1 in the state legislature. This is one of the last rural districts still controlled by the Democratic Party in Washington State, and while a Republican hasn’t held a state office here since long before World War II, the winds of change seem to be blowing. At this point, it isn’t clear which Democrat he will be facing in November – incumbent and Legislative Aide Democrat JD Rossetti, and local Democrat activist Teresa Purcell. Walsh bounced another Republican in the primary on Tuesday. Despite the opportunity for picking up a seat in this legislative district, the Republican establishment has appeared lethargic and hesitant to move aggressively. The Democrats, while divided and struggling to remain relevant in this district have benefitted from historical inertia and the fact that the other legislative seat is held by Democrat Brian Blake, probably the most conservative Democrat legislator left in the state.
In the 41st District (Mercer Island, Bellevue) incumbent Republican Steve Litzow had a challenging primary night as well. When an incumbent can’t capture more than 50% of the primary numbers, it is an invitation for challengers to attack aggressively. While Litzow is used to being under attack, considering this is a Democrat leaning district, it was still disappointing to the Republicans to see this result. While Litzow has been fiscally responsible most of his time in office, his open hostility towards social conservatives is probably not strengthening his campaign. Democrats can attack social conservatives without much political repercussion, but the same type of behavior can cause real problems for Republicans on the bubble. It is unclear what percentage of the electorate in this district would classify themselves this way, however, a high percentage of activists do. These folk are directing their energies at helping other candidates.
In summary, the Republicans are on unexpectedly shaky ground in the State Senate. They will need to do everything right and have a great election night in November to retain control. The Republicans in the house probably have less to lose, but the Democrat House Speaker Frank Chopp is probably less concerned about losing his gavel next year, barring a total Democratic Scandal of epic proportions or the Republicans deciding they really do want the majority and cease their infighting. Despite a corrupt Presidential candidate, an epicly uninspiring and incompetent State Governor candidate, the Washington State Democrats should be delighted.
More articles about the primary results soon…
Our Constitution begins with the phrase “we the people.” It was the founder’s intent that government be created by the people, to serve the people. It wasn’t their intention for the people to serve the government. It was always intended that government which failed to serve the people should be “altered or abolished.” Until we return to the founder’s intent, we remain We the Governed…
More articles for background and additional reference: