There’s a reason roughly $2 million has flowed into the race for Democratic U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer’s old seat in the Legislature: control of the state Senate.
It’s a pile of money, in an off-year election, for what otherwise would be a run-of-the-mill contest to represent a district that stretches from Bremerton to the Key Peninsula.
What sets the 26th District race apart is the fact that Republicans gained control of the state Senate in January for the first time in eight years — but only with the help of two Democrats who crossed party lines to caucus with the GOP. That gave Republicans a slim 25-24 majority.
The GOP wants to pick up Kilmer’s seat, currently held by a Democratic appointee, to solidify its control of the Senate and gain momentum for the 2014 election cycle. Kilmer was elected to Congress last year.
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The party has pinned its hopes on state Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, who was first elected in 2008 with 53 percent of the vote, and re-elected for a third term last year with 59 percent.
“The Republicans probably can’t get to the majority without the 26th District,” said former state GOP Chairman Chris Vance, who noted the party will be defending several swing districts in the 2014 Senate races.
State GOP Chairwoman Susan Hutchison agreed that winning the seat is a top priority.
Can they gain a true Republican majority without it? “I don’t know,” she said.
Democrats also view the seat as a steppingstone to regain the majority. They’re banking on state Sen. Nathan Schlicher, an emergency-room physician appointed to replace Kilmer in January.
Senate Democrats even have a code name for their effort. They call it the “Gateway Project.”
Sen. Sharon Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Campaign, said her goal is to retain Kilmer’s seat and go after three more next year, including the one now held by Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue.
Tom, along with Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, crossed party lines to give the GOP control.
Nelson, D-Maury Island, wouldn’t discuss other targeted seats, but readily acknowledged Tom’s. “That one I can say clearly.”
District leans to GOP
The 26th is an eclectic district that represents parts of Pierce and Kitsap counties including Port Orchard, Gig Harbor and some of Bremerton.
It has a broad mix of residents: Republican and Democrat, poor and affluent, rural and suburban, said Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, who represents the area.
Republicans note GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna (who lost statewide to Jay Inslee) carried the district in 2012, as did their candidates for attorney general and secretary of state.
Seaquist acknowledged the district’s Republican tilt, commenting that “Kilmer and I were probably the Democrats in the Legislature the farthest out on the Republican limb.”
For Democrats representing the district, it means “you have to live and operate out of the middle,” he said.
Schlicher, 30, says he fits that mold.
He grew up in Bremerton, graduated from high school at 14, got his undergraduate degree from Pacific Lutheran University at 17, then went on to get a law degree and medical degree from the University of Washington.
He practices emergency medicine six days a month at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma when the Legislature is not in session. His wife is a family-practice doctor in Port Orchard.
Schlicher says serving in the Legislature is a way to give back to the community, noting that one of his priorities as a lawmaker is increasing access to health care.
Schlicher says he sees patients with catastrophic illnesses who work full time but have no health insurance. “Your heart goes out, in feeling you have to do something,” he said.
His backers include the Washington State Labor Council, the Washington Education Association, the Washington State Medical Association and the Washington State Nurses Association.
Angel, 66, touts her extensive work history in banking, as a business owner and in real estate.
While she has no formal degree, Angel said she’s taken college classes off and on for years. “I’ve been going to school my entire life,” she said.
Angel said she understands the needs of small businesses and what it means to go through hard times, noting she ran several hair salons that encountered problems after her husband died.
“When I have a business that comes to me and says they’re struggling, trying to keep their doors open, that tears my heart out because I’ve been there,” she said.
Her supporters include the Washington Food Industry Association, the National Federation of Independent Business, Washington State Auto Dealers and Premera Blue Cross.
How the money flows
Both sides have plenty of money to get their message out.
Angel’s campaign has raised $535,000.
In addition, an independent expenditure campaign run by the Good Government Leadership Council has raised about $325,000, most of which has been spent backing Angel. The group got almost all of its money from a state Senate Republican caucus political action committee.
By comparison, Schlicher has raised roughly $391,000, but he has a more robust independent expenditure campaign behind him.
A political action committee funded by a coalition of groups, including Fuse and Washington Conservation Voters, has raised around $723,000 in cash and in-kind contributions. The PAC was created for the sole purpose of backing Schlicher.
Republicans have made a campaign issue out of money going into Schlicher’s race from a California billionaire.
McKenna, a former state attorney general as well as 2012 gubernatorial candidate, sent out a fundraising email for Angel recently saying that Thomas Steyer, the founder of Farallon Capital Management, an investment firm, donated $4 million to a political action committee that’s financing groups opposing Angel.
“We can’t let billionaires from California impose their liberal agenda on Washington State,” McKenna said in the email.
State Public Disclosure Commission records show Steyer contributed $3.8 million to the NextGen Climate Action Committee, which then donated $150,000 to the coalition PAC backing Schlicher. Another $150,000 went to Washington Conservation Voters which, in turn, donated some money to the coalition effort.
A spokesman for Steyer said the NextGen PAC is based in California and involved in races around the country. Records show that 80 percent of the PAC’s expenditures so far have gone to other states.
While Democrats and Republicans express confidence they’ll take Kilmer’s old seat, Matt Barreto, a political-science professor at the University of Washington, said history suggests Schlicher has an uphill fight.
“Typically we see stronger turnout among older voters and conservatives in a special off-year election,” Barreto said in an email.
“As compared to November 2012, November 2013 will have a somewhat more conservative-leaning electorate. In a toss-up district, that is better news for the Republican.”
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org