Democrats and Republicans now split control of the Washington Legislature. As they head into the November elections, each party hopes to consolidate power.
OLYMPIA — State Rep. Chris Hurst says one of his biggest accomplishments in 20 years in office was helping to make moderate Democrats a powerful force in the Legislature.
A few years back, that group worked to bring changes to state workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance.
“We were very effective,” Hurst said, even though their coalition “wasn’t all that popular.”
A former police detective who lives in Enumclaw, Hurst was also known for keeping his District 31 seat, a predominantly Republican area, in Democratic hands.
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The two other state lawmakers in the district are Republican, and in 2012 the GOP candidates for president and governor, Mitt Romney and Rob McKenna, each carried the vote there.
Now Hurst is retiring, creating an opening for the GOP that worries Democrats.
“It isn’t my responsibility to hold that seat forever,” Hurst said. “But every two years, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, you’ve got to hold this seat.’ ”
Hurst’s departure underscores how a handful of political races this November could dramatically shift the balance of power in Olympia.
If Republicans hold the Senate and take control of the House, they could have free rein to craft budgets and other policy and force Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee — if he is re-elected — to lean heavily on his veto pen.
House Democrats have seen their large majority whittled away over the years, and they now hold a thin 50-to-48 majority. In the Senate, Republicans hold power by a similarly slim 26-23 edge.
The situation is a world away from 2008, when Democrats controlled the House 63-35 and the Senate 32-17.
The recent narrow margins have given the GOP notable influence in a state where it’s hard for a Republican to win election to statewide office.
If Inslee wins a second term and Democrats hold the House and regain the Senate, they could present a solid front in Olympia.
There are a slew of open seats this year, driven in part by the retirement of seven of the state’s 49 senators. In several of those districts, House members are shifting their political ambitions to run for the Senate.
As usual, most open seats are in districts considered safely Republican or Democrat.
That’s what gives such urgency to the battle over seats such as Hurst’s in the 31st District, a slice of Pierce County that includes parts of Auburn, Bonney Lake and Enumclaw.
Battle for the House
With Hurst’s seat as a pickup opportunity, the House is “effectively tied going into the 2016 election,” argues Kevin Carns, executive director for the House Republican Organizational Committee.
“I’m really confident that’s going to be in the win column for us,” said Carns, adding later: “I’m pretty confident there’s going to be a new party in control in January.”
Republicans Morgan Irwin, Pablo Monroy and Phil Fortunato are running for the seat. But Hurst said he thinks his seat is defendable with candidate Lane Walthers running as an independent Democrat.
Republicans are also seeking to take the open Snohomish County-area seat vacated by Hans Dunshee in the 44th District. It’s a swing district, with the other House seat held by Republican Mark Harmsworth and its Senate seat held by Steve Hobbs, a moderate Democrat.
In the 44th, former Democratic representative and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick is facing off against Republican Janice Huxford.
Republican candidate Ramiro Valderrama is hoping to put in play the 45th District seat of Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland. This district is generally considered competitive, as it is home to both Redmond Republican Sen. Andy Hill and Democratic Rep. Larry Springer of Kirkland, who this year broke with his party to support charter schools.
And Republicans are looking to the southwest part of the state, to the 19th District seat of newly appointed Democratic Rep. JD Rossetti of Longview. Gov. Jay Inslee carried this district by fewer than 200 votes.
Republicans Jim Walsh and Val Tinney are challenging Rossetti, as are Democrats Teresa Purcell and Tim Sutinen.
Hurst cites the strength of Democratic House candidates and the higher turnout expected from the presidential election and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s race as reasons for optimism.
Those factors combined could give Democrats a chance to pick up two to five seats, he said.
“I would probably put money on plus-two,” said Hurst.
Fight for the Senate
GOP presidential nominees have a tough time in Washington state, and with Donald Trump as the presumptive party nominee, Republicans looking to hold onto their slim state Senate majority likely will try differentiate themselves.
“We’ve always had to overcome the national environment regardless of who’s at the top of the ticket,” said Brent Ludeman, executive director of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.
About half the Senate is up for election, and this year, Democrats don’t have to defend many Senate seats, according to Adam Bartz, executive director for the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign.
That means the party can go on the offensive, and “We have really great opportunities this year,” said Bartz.
Democrats are targeting the 17th District in Clark County, which has opened up with the retirement of GOP Sen. Don Benton of Vancouver. It’s a district with two other Republican state lawmakers that has nonetheless seen close vote margins.
Tim Probst — the Democratic challenger who lost to Benton by just 74 votes in 2012 — is running again, this time facing Rep. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver.
“We think Lynda’s in a lot stronger position than Sen. Benton was four years ago,” said Ludeman.
Democrats are also trying to take the 41st District seat held by Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island. It’s a district that has elected Democrats to both its House seats and went strongly for President Barack Obama in 2012.
Also on Democrats’ wish list is the 28th District, where Marisa Peloquin is challenging Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place. It’s a Tacoma-area district that has its House delegation split between one Democrat and one Republican. Likewise in 2012, voters here preferred both Democrat Obama and Republican McKenna.
Meanwhile, Republicans are looking to take the 5th District seat held by Democratic Sen. Mark Mullet of Issaquah. Mullet is facing a challenge from Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah.