KENT — The pivot point for Washington politics in the 2022 midterm elections might just be in Kent.

All three candidates for the 47th legislative district’s state Senate seat live there, in neighborhoods of subdivisions and strip malls on East Hill, about 20 miles southeast of downtown Seattle.

The top two vote-getters in the primary race between Republican Bill Boyce and Democrats Satwinder Kaur and Claudia Kauffman will advance to the November general election, and they’re vying in an honest-to-goodness swing district that includes half of Kent, half of Auburn, all of Covington and some less-developed areas.

The Senate seat seesawed from Republican to Democratic in 2006, to Republican in 2010, to Democratic again in 2018.

A majority of the district’s voters chose Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Yet Republicans view this year’s contest as a chance to gain ground in a Senate controlled by Democrats. The seat is vacant because Sen. Mona Das, a Democrat, isn’t running for reelection. The district’s boundaries changed slightly last year.

FAST FACTS

Bill Boyce (R): 64, human resources manager, Kent City Council president, $177,343 raised

Satwinder Kaur (D): 36, technology manager, Kent City Council member, $73,522 raised

Claudia Kauffman (D): 63, Muckleshoot Indian Tribe intergovernmental affairs liaison, former state senator, $41,937 raised

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“This particular race is going to be a real bellwether,” said Mathew Patrick Thomas, chair of the King County GOP, which has endorsed Boyce. “I think this is the No. 1 race in the state that we can pick up.”

The primary among Boyce, Kaur and Kauffman could be particularly competitive because the district is so varied, including urban, suburban and rural areas, with voters of every political persuasion. The population is majority nonwhite, and all three candidates are people of color, each with experience in elected office.

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“The 47th District is at the top of our list,” said Shasti Conrad, chair of the King County Democrats, which has endorsed Kaur, describing South King County politics as a microcosm of the national landscape. “We believe it’s a Democratic district now, but we have to do the work to turn out voters.”

Across the country, Republicans are hoping that discontent over inflation and crime will result in a “red wave,” while Democrats are pushing back on those topics and working to galvanize voters dismayed at mass shootings and the recent anti-abortion ruling by Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices.

When asked to pick the issue most important to them in the recent WA Poll commissioned by The Seattle Times and partners, abortion was No. 1 among suburban Washington voters and inflation was No. 2.

The outcome of the 47th District race matters because the Legislature can pass laws related to taxes, policing, guns, health care, LGBTQ+ rights and more. Republicans need to flip four Senate seats to take control of that body, but even a couple of changes could weaken Democratic muscle.

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Boyce, Kaur and Kauffman sound somewhat similar talking about taxes but diverge more on other issues. For example, Kaur said she would support a ban on the sale of assault weapons and a state constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights, and Kauffman leaned toward those steps, while the more conservative Boyce said he opposes the former and declined to share an opinion on the latter.

Meanwhile, the candidates are also telling their own stories and addressing problems, like the region’s affordable housing shortage, with each saying they believe denser options are needed. Prices have soared. Rents have climbed past $2,000 per month for two bedrooms, said Gwen Allen-Carston, a Kent community leader supporting Kauffman.

“The situation is horrendous,” she said. “Who can really afford that?”

Meet the candidates

Kauffman is running for a seat she previously held from 2007 to 2010, when she lost to Republican Joe Fain. A member of the Nez Perce Tribe, she was the first Native woman elected to the Senate, where she focused partly on education issues and Indigenous rights.

Asked about her time in Olympia, Kauffman pointed to her support for a 1% cap on property tax increases and her sponsorship of a privacy law protecting data recorded by “black box” devices in vehicles. The Legislature reinstated the 1% cap in 2007 — approved via ballot initiative — after the state Supreme Court struck it down based on a technicality. Many city leaders have chafed against the 1% cap, but, “We can’t tax our way out of things. I think we have to be stronger and smarter with what we have,” Kauffman said.

Were she to win her old seat back, Kauffman’s priorities would include investments in housing, public education and child care, she said, chatting at a supermarket Starbucks near her condo.

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“I bring the values of the everyday person in the 47th District,” Kauffman said. “It’s about equity and opportunity.”

Kaur is a Kent City Council member and is endorsed by the sitting senator, Das. First elected in 2017 and reelected last year, Kaur was drawn into politics through service work, as encouraged in the Sikh religion, she said. When she was a single mother at 19 after a marriage marred by abuse, “volunteering was something I went back to,” Kaur said.

The 47th District needs her, she says, because she’s built relationships with a wide range of political and community leaders, and because she would balance Democratic Party stances with her own ideas and constituents’ wishes.

People from diverse communities, even beyond Kent, already “reach out to me,” because she is a problem solver, Kaur said, directing campaign helpers in English and Punjabi as they knocked on doors close to her home.

“Sometimes, our communities feel like government isn’t listening to them,” Kaur said. “They feel like agendas are being pushed far left or far right. Most people don’t live that way. … We need to stop blaming each other and actually try to solve these problems.”

Boyce is a three-term Kent City Council member and the council’s current president. A former U.S. Army Ranger who previously served on the Kent School Board, Boyce grew up in North Carolina, where he attended a segregated elementary school, he said.

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Though Boyce is “not a Trump guy” and briefly considered running as an independent, “I don’t think you can win” that way, he said, describing “fiscal responsibility” as a crucial difference between Republicans and Democrats.

“I’m all about us living within our means,” Boyce said after delivering remarks at a charity event with police officers and firefighters at a supermarket in Federal Way, citing his work on the Kent City Council to build up the rainy-day fund.

Many voters are tired of liberal approaches to drugs, crime and homelessness, he added, suggesting that “people are just ready for a change.”

Advocates make their case

Policing in Kent could play a role in the Senate race, with Kauffman mentioning large payouts to settle matters involving cops, including $1.5 million to buy the resignation of a former assistant chief disciplined for posting a Nazi rank insignia on his office door and joking about the Holocaust. Kent leaders have allowed “an atmosphere where people feel comfortable doing that,” Kauffman said.

Before the assistant chief’s resignation, he was suspended for two weeks without pay. Boyce said the city “tried to hold him accountable” while contending with legal guardrails.

“No matter where you work,” he said, “you’re going to have that one bad actor.”

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Conrad, with the King County Democrats, described Kaur as an energetic public servant who stands up for immigrant rights and argued Boyce can’t “pretend to be moderate” while aligning with an increasingly extreme Republican Party that wants to “strip away the rights of vulnerable populations.”

South King County voters know Boyce, said Thomas, with the Republicans, who believes his party can win by communicating empathy to swing voters.

“Just look at the issues and the candidates and give us one shot,” he said.

The district needs a senator who will act urgently to bolster services for less-wealthy residents, said Allen-Carston, speaking personally rather than as executive director of the Kent Black Action Commission. Boyce and Kaur have handled nuts and bolts on the council, but Kauffman has “a heart for the people,” she said.

Boyce has raised the most money in the race, drawing partly from the Republican Party and real estate developers. Kaur is second, getting help partly from unions, and Kauffman is third, backed partly by tribes.