Despite Washington’s blue-state politics and the Trump factor, Republicans could take the state Legislature for the first time since 1997, writes columnist Jonathan Martin.
Forget Trump. Tune out Hillary and the Bern.
The election Washington voters should be obsessing about is not the circus on CNN. Rather, it is the fight this fall for control of the state Legislature. It will determine if Washington, for practical purposes, fades from blue to a shade of purple.
You wouldn’t know it in the political bubble of Seattle, but Republicans are on the upswing in Olympia. Since effectively retaking the state Senate in 2013, the GOP has cast the biggest shadow, outfoxing Democrats by cutting college tuition and whittling Gov. Jay Inslee’s environmental ambitions from a Tesla down to a pinewood derby car.
This fall, the Democrats’ slim majority in the state House (50-48) is up for grabs. It is not hard to sketch a scenario in which the GOP keeps the Senate and picks up three or four House seats.
If that happens, Democrats would be mostly frozen out of budget negotiations, leaving Inslee — if he’s re-elected — playing defense with his veto pen.
This isn’t just me talking; Democrats are nervous. Since the Obama wave in 2008, when the historic 84 percent turnout propelled Democrats to a 63-35 House majority, the GOP has chipped away every year.
That’s partly because the party political machine — traditionally staunch social conservatives in a left- and libertarian-leaning state — stopped imposing a litmus test. Leadership — particularly state Rep. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm — recruited candidates with moderate social views to compete in suburban swing districts. That helped focus races on economic issues, where the GOP fares better.
The “big tent” approach has included recent wins by pro-abortion-rights state Reps. Terri Hickel in Federal Way and Melanie Stambaugh in Puyallup, who is 29. And there are, by some counts, 13 votes for repealing the death penalty among House Republicans, as I wrote recently.
This year, the big-tent approach includes Pablo Monroy, a 28-year-old Latino and Iraq war veteran, who would be the Legislature’s first openly gay Republican. Co-owner of Odd Otter Brewing in Tacoma, Monroy leads with a business-friendly pitch. But as an activist for gay marriage during the Referendum 74 campaign, he also hopes to be a “translator” for equality in the GOP caucus.
“We want to raise kids, get married and serve in the military. That sounds pretty Republican to me,” said Monroy, who is running in the 31st Legislative District for suburban east Pierce County.
The counterargument to this scenario is that the high turnout in presidential-election years favors Democrats. There is also an effort under way to put a higher statewide-minimum-wage measure on the November ballot, which could energize younger, left-leaning voters. Fair points.
The biggest unknown — for Democrats and Republicans alike — is the divisive Donald Trump, who is at this point the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. The nativist and sexist comments of the reality TV star could force Republicans to disavow the top of the ticket and depress support for party candidates further down the ballot, such as those running for the Legislature.
There’s never been anyone like Trump. But one parallel is 1996, when GOP nominee Ellen Craswell, the most extreme gubernatorial candidate in recent history, campaigned on a fundamentalist “God’s plan” for Washington.
She lost badly to Democrat Gary Locke, and Bill Clinton easily beat Bob Dole in Washington. But the Republican losses did not extend to the Legislature. The GOP maintained its margins. Washington voters are good at splitting the ticket.
Of course, all this is conjecture. The 2016 races aren’t even set. Filing week for candidates in Washington doesn’t begin until May 16.
For those who want to get deep in the weeds, the races I’m watching are in the 44th Legislative District (a swing Snohomish County area), the 28th district (a right-leaning Pierce County district with only one incumbent Democrat) and the 19th district (southwest Washington coast, one of the last rural districts still represented by Democrats). If Monroy’s opponent, longtime Democratic Rep. Christopher Hurst, retires, add that district to the list.
The undeniable enthusiasm among Republican strategists for controlling both houses of the Legislature for the first time since 1997 dovetails with frustration over their 30-year losing streak for governor and for U.S. Senate seats. Inslee leads GOP candidate Bill Bryant by 12 points in a recent Elway poll, despite a really bad year for Inslee.
Tune out the chatter at the presidential level. The power play in this state is who will set the agenda for everything from education funding to implementation of Obamacare, from the state tax code to reproductive rights.
It could end with blue turning to purple.