In this era of multimillion-dollar super PACs and independent spending, money given to the political parties in Washington still plays a critical role in financing gubernatorial races.

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Yakima attorney Blaine Tamaki and his wife gave $7,200 to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee — the maximum allowed by law — then donated $80,000 more to the state party to help out the candidate.

“The party makes its own decisions in terms of how the donations will be used, but I’m hoping they’ll use the money on the governor’s race,” Tamaki said. “I’m a believer in Jay.”

The state Democratic Party has given nearly $1.5 million in cash and in-kind contributions to Inslee’s campaign so far. The state Republican Party hasn’t given any money yet to its candidate, Rob McKenna, but that will change soon, said party Chairman Kirby Wilbur.

“We will be in the game,” he said.

In this era of multimillion-dollar super PACs and independent spending, money given to the political parties in Washington still plays a critical role in financing gubernatorial races. And a large share of that comes from big donors like Tamaki, who can assume at least a portion of their donations will benefit their candidate.

Since last year, more than 70 percent of the money raised for the Democratic Party’s account that supports state candidates has gone directly to Inslee’s campaign, according to state records. Money also goes to other candidates and day-to-day office expenses, among other things.

Most of the cash contributed to the party came from donations of $1,000 or more by groups and individuals.

While large donations to state parties could be viewed as a way to get around individual contribution limits to candidates, it is perfectly legal. In fact, the state campaign-finance system was designed to filter large donations through the state parties.

In the 2008 election, for example, the GOP donated nearly $690,000 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, while the state Democratic Party contributed about $1.45 million to Gov. Chris Gregoire.

State parties are the only ones allowed to write large checks to candidates. Under state law, each party can contribute a maximum of $3.3 million to its gubernatorial candidate this election.

Initiative 134

The state campaign-finance system was put in place by Initiative 134, approved by voters in 1992.

The measure was backed by former GOP state Sen. Linda Smith, who was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Smith worked with Republican staff, including me, to write a campaign-finance reform law that would control campaign spending in a way that would not hurt Republicans,” said Chris Vance, a former state GOP chairman, who worked on the issue as a Senate Republican staffer in the late 1980s. “Back then, Republicans thought we had a big advantage among wealthy individuals.”

Recent history has proved them wrong. The state Democratic Party buried the Republican Party when it came to fundraising during the last two gubernatorial election cycles.

So far this election cycle, the Democratic Party reports raising more than $1.9 million, compared with around $1.2 million for the Republican Party.

By comparison, Inslee and McKenna report raising more than $8.5 million each in cash and in-kind contributions for their campaigns.

Before I-134 was approved, there were no limits on how much groups and individuals could give to candidates. The new law capped contributions to candidates, currently $3,600 per person or organization, but allowed vastly larger contributions to the state parties.

“It provides a distance between the really big contributions and the candidates,” said Paul Berendt, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party.

It also has enhanced the party’s influence.

“The state party can give more money to candidates than anybody else. More than the unions, more than anybody,” Vance said. “So the system was designed that way on purpose by the people who framed the law. They wanted to influence the role of state parties and influence the ability of individuals to contribute.”

72 give max

As of last week, 72 organizations and individuals had given the maximum contribution to Inslee’s campaign, and also contributed an additional $519,000 in total to the party account supporting state candidates.

The Republican party had 44 donors who’ve contributed the maximum to McKenna and given an additional $213,000 total to the party.

Tamaki said he knew Inslee when the former congressman worked as an attorney in Eastern Washington.

“Since I did reach my limit to support Jay individually, both my wife and I felt very strongly that this election cycle is the most important one in my lifetime on a statewide basis. That’s why my wife and I decided to participate financially so actively,” Tamaki said.

He believed his contributions were needed to help offset money coming in from the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and others. He’d also like to see the party spend more on voter turnout for Latinos in the Yakima area.

The RGA, so far, has poured $5.2 million into a political-action committee that is running an independent expenditure campaign supporting McKenna.

On the other side, a labor-backed group, Our Washington, has raised $4.4 million to support Inslee.

Material from The Seattle Times archives was used in this article.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or