OLYMPIA — One more wave election and Democrats could see some of their biggest Washington House and Senate majorities of the 21st century.
In 2018, Democrats picked up seven House seats and three Senate seats, riding a wave against Republicans in a state where President Donald Trump has been deeply unpopular.
Those wins — giving Democrats a 57-to-41 majority in the House and a 28-to-21 majority in the Senate — gave the party dominance in Olympia for the first time in years. The big Democratic majorities have since passed a slew of progressive legislation on climate change, health care, firearms regulations and other issues.
Now, the parties are fighting again for the votes to set and push through an agenda in Olympia on everything from taxes and spending, to health care, housing and jobs.
This year, the global coronavirus pandemic has magnified the stakes.
When they return as scheduled in January, lawmakers will likely face excruciating decisions on taxes and spending to balance an $8.8 billion projected state budget shortfall through 2023. The new class of legislators will also consider policing reforms in light of the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd.
They must also grapple with Washington’s persistent preexisting problems, such as homelessness and housing affordability, and continuing to rebuild the state’s struggling mental-health care system.
All 98 House seats are up for election, along with 26 Senate seats. Ballots started going out two weeks ago.
The Aug. 4 top two primary results will give a snapshot of which races could be truly competitive in the Nov. 3 general election.
Democrats are betting on picking up more seats as Trump tops the GOP ticket. And they believe that the state’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic — driven primarily by Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat — will win support from voters.
“People are looking for responsible leadership who are going to look to public health guidance,” said Adam Bartz, executive director of the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.
Democrats have room to grow. In 2018, at least five House Republicans fended off Democratic candidates by less than 2.5%; at least one other prevailed by less than 5%. This year, Democrats are eyeing as many as five GOP-held Senate seats.
Republicans this year are looking to recapture some of the seats they lost in 2018, hold on to what they have, and maintain some kind of sway amid national headwinds.
Those in the GOP believe their legislative candidates can win by highlighting tax hikes passed by Democratic majorities and signed by Inslee in recent years— and pointing to the new taxes some Democrats want to approve.
Washington State Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich cited a recent proposal by Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, to enact new taxes — including on capital gains — to fund public health, child care, affordable housing, early learning, workforce education and other programs.
He says Democrats are “taking Seattle policies and pushing them statewide.”
And while Seattle’s liberal politics have been a routine feature of Republican campaign ads in recent years, the GOP has focused on the recent protests in Seattle and the brief life of the controversial autonomous zone known as Capitol Hill Occupied Protest.
Heimlich described that dynamic as “lawlessness, anarchy, chaos” that Republicans hope will pull suburban voters in their direction.
Like U.S. congressional races, most of Washington’s 49 state legislative districts are generally considered safe for one party or the other. In most elections, only a handful of districts across Western Washington are fiercely contested and considered competitive.
One perennial swing district is Pierce County’s 28th District, where Democrats won both House seats in 2018.
The district’s GOP Sen. Steve O’Ban of University Place is a top target this year for Democrats. Appointed to the Senate in 2013 after briefly serving in the House, O’Ban won re-election in 2016 from a district that favored Hillary Clinton for president.
O’Ban, a senior counsel for Pierce County working on behavioral health issues, will face Democrat T’wina Nobles, in both the August primary and the fall general election.
Nobles is president and CEO of the Tacoma Urban League and a member of the University Place School Board.
The contest could likely be the most expensive legislative race of the year. O’Ban has so far raised $363,000 and Nobles has raised $247,000, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).
The retirement of Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, in the 10th District — which includes Island County and parts of Snohomish and Skagit counties — has created another potential opportunity for Democrats.
Democrats picked up a House seat there in 2018, and candidate Helen Price Johnson will face Bailey’s appointed replacement, Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor.
Democrats are also eyeing the Puyallup-area 25th District, where Sen. Hans Zeiger is retiring to run for Pierce County Council and where Republicans in 2018 narrowly held onto both House seats.
Another battleground is Whatcom County’s 42nd District. Democrats picked up a seat there in 2018 when Rep. Sharon Shewmake, D-Bellingham, eked out a victory. This year, she will face Republican Jennifer Sefzik.
Meanwhile, Democratic challenger Alicia Rule is challenging Rep. Luanne Van Werven, R-Lynden, who narrowly fended off a challenger in 2018.
Republicans have remained upbeat about Southwest Washington’s 19th Legislative District, which covers all or part of five counties, including Grays Harbor County.
They picked up a seat there in 2016 with the election of Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, who narrowly won reelection in 2018.
A longtime Democratic stronghold, the district voted for Trump in 2016. Grays Harbor County that year went Republican in the presidential race for the first time since supporting Herbert Hoover in 1928.
The district still has two moderate Democratic lawmakers. Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, faces a challenge from Republicans Wes Cormier and Jeff Wilson. Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, faces a challenge from Republican Joel McIntire.
And Walsh – whose seat Democrats are targeting – faces a challenge from Democrats Marianna Everson and Clint Bryson.