The head of the state’s campaign-finance watchdog office made a mistake in wading into a hot political race.

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THE state Public Disclosure Commission is the referee of Washington’s campaign-finance laws. It’s a thankless job, especially in food-fight election years like this one. Like a referee, the agency must be fair, nonpartisan and respected.

Sadly, the PDC’s newly appointed executive director, Evelyn Fielding Lopez, has lost control of this year’s election game, and she needs to ask herself if she can still be an effective referee.

The state Republican Party filed an ethics complaint against her and demanded Lopez’s resignation after she waded into a superheated state Senate race in Vancouver. At issue is an unusual letter Lopez sent to state Sen. Tim Probst, the Democrat in that race, declaring that some attack ads against him inaccurately described PDC rulings.

That is an odd decision by Lopez, because her job demands she stay above the political fray. Fact-checking political ads is better left to folks like newspaper reporters — The Columbian newspaper did such a fact check, and found one ad in question to be truthful. Lopez said she was trying to defend her agency’s work, but she set a bad precedent.

The GOP has cried foul but is also guilty of being a bit dramatic about the whole affair. Demanding the PDC director’s resignation in the middle of a hot political season smacks of hyper-partisanship, especially since the Vancouver race in question could determine control of the state Senate. The GOP argues that Lopez has lost the appearance of fairness but has not made a good case that her agency has actually been unfair overall in its campaign-finance rulings.

Lopez has also given the GOP ammunition for attack. She had to recuse herself from another PDC case — this one involving a methanol-plant proposed for her home city of Tacoma — after criticizing the proposal in a comment thread. She’s donated frequently to Democrats and identifies herself as a Democrat.

The PDC is a unique agency and must not allow itself to be sucked into the partisan muck. Lopez was appointed by the five-member Public Disclosure Commission in September after a distinguished career in the state Attorney General’s Office.

The agency is underfunded, with three vacant positions out of a staff of 21, and urgently needs to upgrade its computer infrastructure. Lopez, as executive director, needs to have credibility when she requests funding from the very lawmakers whose campaigns her agency polices.

In wading into the Vancouver Senate race, Lopez committed something akin to a misdemeanor offense, not a felony. In an interview with The Seattle Times editorial board, Lopez acknowledged that she inadvertently put her agency squarely in the fray and sounds contrite about this misstep and about her earlier mistake in the Tacoma methanol-plant mess.

Lopez must decide whether she can be effective, particularly in securing a better budget out of the Legislative session. The public needs a campaign-finance referee too much to let the agency suffer.