By Rachel La Corte
The Associated Press
OLYMPIA — A handful of races could decide whether there’s a shake-up in the state Legislature this November, as Democrats hope to regain control of the Senate and Republicans have their eye on a majority in the House.
All 98 seats in the House are up for election Nov. 8, and 26 of the Senate’s 49 seats will also be decided by voters.
In the Senate, Republicans — along with a Democrat who caucuses with them — hold a 26-23 advantage but a few close races in that chamber give Democrats hope they can regain a slim majority.
Democrats see a path to the majority with two seats: Republican Sen. Steve Litzow of Mercer Island, who trailed Democrat Lisa Wellman by more than a percentage point in August’s “top two” primary for the 41st District; and the open seat in Vancouver’s 17th district, where Democrat Tim Probst and Republican Rep. Lynda Wilson are in a tight race. Wilson led Probst by just 50 votes in the primary.
Democrats are also eyeing the seats of two other Republican incumbents, Sens. Steve O’Ban and Barbara Bailey.
Adam Bartz, executive director of the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign committee, believes the polarizing presidential election will benefit Democratic candidates down the ticket in the state.
“Having a less-than-enthusiastic Republican base mixed with an enthusiastic Democratic base can make for a good night for Democrats or a great night for Democrats,” he said.
Brent Ludeman, executive director of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, noted Democrats must first protect a tight race between incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Mullet, who is being challenged by Republican Rep. Chad Magendanz.
Ludeman said he believes that if the election were held today, Republicans would hold the seats Democrats are targeting, and that the Mullet seat is a “coin toss that can go either way.”
He said that while presidential years are “always a challenge for Republicans,” he’s confident voters will differentiate local candidates from the top of the ticket.
“The local Republican brand here is a lot different than the national brand,” he said.
Democrats currently hold a 50-48 advantage in the House, and if they lose just one seat, they’ll be forced to share power with Republicans, something that last happened from 1999 to 2001. If Republicans pick up more than one seat, they’ll take outright control for the first time since 1998.
Republicans, who have steadily chipped away a near supermajority Democratic advantage in the House throughout the past decade, are optimistic that this is the year the scale will tip in their favor.
Kevin Carns, director of the Reagan Fund, the House Republicans’ political action committee, is confident about Republicans’ chances in an open seat in Pierce County, as well as a few others.
He’s not too worried about the effect the presidential election might have on local races, noting Republicans have picked up seats even in recent previous presidential years where there was significant Democratic turnout.
“We’ve proven we can win in any kind of political environment,” he said.
Democratic state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, who chairs the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said Republicans shouldn’t count their wins just yet.
“We don’t think there’s much of a chance with the quality of candidates we’re running, and the general national mood out there, that Republicans are going to have a good year in the Washington Legislature,” he said. “The polarization is pretty stark right now.”
More than $22 million has been raised in legislative campaigns, of which $13 million has been spent so far. More than $4 million has been spent by third-party groups in independent expenditures. Mullet has been the target of the most independent expenditure spending, at more than $400,000, followed by Probst and Litzow.
The top campaigns raising and spending the most include the Senate races of Litzow, Mullet and O’Ban.
Litzow has raised more than $617,000, while Wellman, his Democratic opponent, has raised about $277,000. Mullet has raised nearly $400,000, while Magendanz has raised more than $347,000. And O’Ban has raised more than $430,000 in his race against Democrat Marisa Peloquin, who has raised about $245,000.