For several decades, the rolling hills, subdivisions and freeways of the Eastside were a comfortable refuge for Republican state legislators...

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For several decades, the rolling hills, subdivisions and freeways of the Eastside were a comfortable refuge for Republican state legislators.

Democratic challengers lined up with no chance to win, and the few times they eked out a victory, they usually lasted only a term.

That’s no longer the case, as the Dems have picked up seats in almost every election since 1998. Party leaders say they’re confident enough this fall to think they can sweep all eight contested races in the districts that make up the bulk of the Eastside.

Republicans won’t concede nearly that much, but Chris Vance, former state Republican chairman, said a trend is there.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that the Eastside districts that used to be overwhelmingly Republican are now very competitive,” Vance said.

Former Rep. Laura Ruderman was one of the first Democrats to win in the largely Eastside districts, in 1998, followed by Reps. Ross Hunter and Judy Clibborn in 2002 and Rep. Larry Springer and Sen. Brian Weinstein in 2004.

Nationally, suburban voters are becoming more socially liberal, while maintaining their fiscal conservatism, Vance said. Voters are increasingly making decisions based on their values instead of their level of income or education.

Eastside residents tend to have more money and schooling and still don’t want their taxes raised, Vance said, but they’re also relatively secular and socially liberal.

This mix has created legislative districts that could swing to either party. Presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry did well on the Eastside, but seven of the 12 legislators in the 5th, 41st, 45th and 48th districts are still Republican.

With such a blend of beliefs, the unique characteristics of a candidate can sway voters. Eastside residents are looking for professionals with moderate views and concerns about education, transportation and high-tech jobs, Vance said.

The highest-profile legislative race on the Eastside involves Sen. Luke Esser, R-Bellevue, vying for re-election in the 48th District against Rep. Rodney Tom, who switched from Republican to Democrat this year.

Tom said his support for abortion rights, gay rights and stem-cell research is a better fit as a Democrat and for the district. Esser, meanwhile, said voters agree with his consistency, his work on transportation and his opposition to tax increases without voter approval.

In the other Eastside Senate race, Rep. Toby Nixon, R-Kirkland, is facing Democrat Eric Oemig to see who replaces retiring Republican Sen. Bill Finkbeiner in the 45th District.

House members are elected to two-year terms; senators serve four-year terms.

Every Eastside incumbent running this fall is facing a challenger from the other party, except for the 5th District, which includes the Snoqualmie Valley, Sammamish and far east King County. The district is more rural and still solidly enough Republican that Democrats didn’t bother to run anyone against Reps. Glenn Anderson and Jay Rodne.

Republicans think they can keep their other four seats up for election this fall and perhaps pick up a couple more. If the candidates stick to a message of keeping government spending in check and not raising taxes, they “will be fine,” said Diane Tebelius, state Republican chairwoman.

Democrats say the declining popularity of President Bush and national Republican leaders will hurt local candidates.

“The Republican Party has veered to the right, and voters have stayed in the middle,” said Dwight Pelz, state Democratic chairman.

Whatever the outcome this fall, most of the Eastside appears to be open territory.

“A Republican or a Democrat can’t think they’re entitled to it or that it’s theirs forever,” Tebelius said, “because voters want their legislators responsive.”

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or abach@seattletimes.com