OLYMPIA — When it comes to talking about state Sen. Tim Sheldon, the label Democrat has long been a point of contention.

Sheldon describes himself as a moderate Democrat; some media have called him a conservative Democrat, even a nominal Democrat.

One thing is clear: Sheldon has over and over frustrated the party faithful. And as District 35 primary returns continue to trickle in, it shows: Sheldon now trails Democrat Irene Bowling, 35 percent to 33 percent.

And he’s OK with that, as long as he can secure second place and move forward in the top-two primary.

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“I think this bodes well for me if I can maintain second place,” he said Wednesday. “It was extremely low turnout. … I think the partisan voters turned out.”

Whether he’s right could help determine the future of the state Senate.

Sheldon’s seat is one of a handful that may decide control of the chamber — control that Sheldon himself helped decide two years ago. Sheldon joined Sen. Rodney Tom, a Democrat from Medina, in leaving the Democratic caucus to form the Majority Caucus Coalition (MCC) with Republicans. With a Democratic governor and a Democrat-controlled state House, the Senate has given Republicans leverage.

Tom, who became majority leader of the MCC, is retiring this year, leaving Sheldon to take any electoral heat from the duo’s partnership with the GOP. In the race to replace Tom in the 48th District, Democrat Cyrus Habib led Republican Michelle Darnell on Wednesday 63 to 37 percent.

The Sheldon-Tom alliance with Senate Republicans drew considerable acrimony from Democrats.

“I think it was very dishonest,” said Bowling, a concert pianist and music teacher who now leads Sheldon.

When Bowling looks at the MCC, she says she sees a group of lawmakers who have failed to pass a transportation package and could stall Gov. Jay Inslee’s environmental agenda.

Sheldon, who is from Potlatch, is a Mason County commissioner who has served in the Legislature since 1991; his first six years were as state representative. He has long drawn flak from Democrats: for endorsing President George W. Bush and Republican gubernatorial hopeful Dino Rossi in 2004, and for helping stop a gay-rights bill in 2005.

Sheldon sees this as independence.

“You have to do it the way you see it and not just go with the caucus the whole time,” he said. “It just doesn’t fit for me.”

In third place but still pulling 31 percent is Republican Travis Couture. A contractor for Lockheed Martin, Couture describes his philosophy in six words: “Smaller government, lower taxes, more freedom.”

“The political dynamic has changed a little bit,” he said, referencing the MCC. “But I don’t think it goes far enough.”

Elsewhere, votes continued to pile up in legislative races but did little to change the outcomes.

The already narrow margin separating Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, and GOP challenger Rep. Cathy Dahlquist in District 31 tightened even more. As of Wednesday, Roach led with 40.4 percent to Dahlquist’s 39.2 percent, with Democrat Lynda Messner collecting 20.4 percent, and looking unlikely to reach the general election.

In Seattle’s 43rd District, Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp maintained a huge lead over Socialist Alternative candidate Jess Spear. Chopp led 81 percent to Spear’s 19 percent.

In the 37th District, which includes Southeast Seattle and Renton, community activist Pramila Jayapal slightly increased her lead in the six-way race to 53 percent. Democrat and former teacher Louis Watanabe was ahead in the count for the second general-election spot, with 17 percent of the vote. Trailing were Republican Rowland Martin with 11 percent; and Democrats Sheley Secrest with 10 percent, John Stafford with 8 percent and Claude Burfect with 2 percent.

Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report. Joseph O’Sullivan: 360-236-8268 or josullivan@seattletimes.com.