OLYMPIA — If you want to see how Washington is changing politically, don’t look to the races for governor or president — look to the Legislature.
Far down the ballots from the big-ticket races, elections are playing out for 26 of the 49 state Senate seats, as well as 98 House seats.
This year, a slew of hotly-contested races around Puget Sound and out on its fringes — including four key Senate races — could bring striking changes to a Legislature fated to reckon with the COVID-19 pandemic.
When lawmakers return in January — and perhaps earlier in a special legislative session — they’ll reckon with a steep economic downturn that will force hard decisions on taxes and spending that could touch every community in the state. Meanwhile, legislators will debate changes to policing accountability in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and close to home, Manuel Ellis, who was killed in March by Tacoma police.
What happens next is up to the voters. Turnout in the voting period ahead of Tuesday surges across Washington and could potentially to shatter records.
As of Friday evening, roughly 3.16 million Washington voters had already returned their ballots, according to the state Secretary of State’s Office. That put voter turnout at 64.8% with four more days of voting yet to go in the Nov. 3 election.
Democrats are hoping to pick up a handful of House and Senate seats to extend their already formidable current majorities. Democrats right now have a 57-to-41 House majority and a 28-to-21 majority in the Senate.
Republicans see opportunities for themselves too, to hold seats and pick up a few in some of Western Washington’s more rural enclaves.
But perhaps most interesting are the potential changes within the Democratic Party. A host of Black women running this year could substantially boost the diversity in a Legislature that has often skewed white and male.
Meanwhile, a handful of intraparty races could determine whether Democrats move further to the left. At least a trio of incumbents face competition from challengers frustrated that progressive taxes and climate-change measures are still stalled at the Capitol.
“I think a big narrative in the campaign is which direction is the Democratic Party going to be going, at least locally,” said Crystal Fincher, a Kent-based Democratic political consultant.
Front and center in that category is the race in King County’s 5th Legislative District between Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah and challenger Ingrid Anderson, a nurse.
State Reps. Frank Chopp of Seattle and Zack Hudgins of Tukwila also face serious challenges this year.
The races come as Democrats face the coronavirus recovery while still haunted by spending cuts made during the Great Recession — which included cuts to the state’s now-struggling mental-health system. Meanwhile, Democrats have long bemoaned Washington’s tax system as too regressive.
“And at stake is the approach to how we recover, the approach to how to manage a budget that they’re going to need to figure out how to make up for some revenue shortfalls,” said Fincher. “A lot of it is framed as austerity versus caring for most in need, is revenue going to be on the table in a meaningful way, which cuts are going to be on the table?”
Republicans are also watching this debate unfold — nervously. Generally opposed to new taxes, the GOP has watched calls grow among Democrats for more spending, a tax on capital gains, and Gov. Jay Inslee’s continuing push for climate-change measures opposed by businesses.
The race between Anderson and Mullet sticks out in particular, since it could send a powerful signal to a handful of other moderate Democrats who have kept some of those measures bottled up in the Senate.
“If Mullet loses, I think anybody that’s willing to say ‘no’ [to taxes] is going to be intimidated,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville.
Perhaps the most high-profile race between the major parties is in Pierce County’s 28th District, where Democrats are again targeting Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place.
O’Ban won reelection in 2016, the same year voters there went for Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. The 28th District includes two notable institutions, Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) and Western State Hospital, Washington’s largest psychiatric facility.
Appointed to the Senate in 2013 after a brief stint in the House, O’Ban is a senior counsel for Pierce County on behavioral health issues.
If reelected, O’Ban — who is one of the lead GOP lawmakers working on mental-health issues — said he wants to continue working in that arena and keep pushing for a reduction in car-tab fees for residents.
The long-running debate over car tabs reemerged last month when the Washington Supreme Court struck down Initiative 976, a voter-approved measure that would have reduced car-tab fees.
“Mental health, huge issue for my district, and the car-tab tax is a huge issue for my district, and I got funding for the JBLM I-5 corridor expansion that’s eliminating the gridlock,” he said.
He faces a stiff challenge from T’wina Nobles, a former teacher who is now a member of the University Place School Board and president and CEO of the Tacoma Urban League.
Nobles would be the first Black woman in the Senate in a decade, and said she would support a capital-gains tax “on only the wealthiest” and also seeks ways for relief on car-tab fees.
“We need to make sure that we pay attention to our regressive tax system and that we’re fighting for tax reform and figuring out progressive ways for tax revenue,” said Nobles.
“And I do not, absolutely do not support more taxes on working or middle-class families,” she added later.
The contest is the highest-spending state legislative race this cycle, with the two candidates raising the most dollars. Nobles as of Friday raised $872,427, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission, and O’Ban raised $841,617.
Meanwhile, outside spending groups have poured nearly $2.2 million into independent expenditures to support the candidates — or attack them.
In another key and high-spending race, Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor faces Democratic challenger candidate Helen Price Johnson. Muzzall, appointed to fill the seat of Sen. Barbara Bailey, who stepped down, edged out Price Johnson in the August primary.
At least three Democratic incumbents — in Southwest Washington and Whatcom County — trailed the GOP vote share in the Aug. 4 primaries.
That includes Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, who now faces Republican challenger Jeff Wilson, and state Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, who faces GOP challenger Joel McEntire.
Seattle Times business reporter Paul Roberts contributed to this report