In the past few years, state House seats have slipped through the fingers of Democrats during elections, one or a handful at a time. But will it have lasting implications?
OLYMPIA — In recent years, state House seats have slipped through Democrats’ fingers during elections, one or a few at a time.
The trend continued last week, as Republican challenger Teri Hickel defeated Democratic Rep. Carol Gregory in South King County’s 30th Legislative District, giving Democrats their slimmest majority in the House since 2002.
The GOP’s legislative victories — gaining outright control of the state Senate last year and nibbling the Democratic House majority to 50-48 — stand in sharp contrast to its problems winning statewide elections.
Of Washington’s nine statewide elected offices, eight are held by Democrats. Despite some close races, voters haven’t elected a Republican governor since 1980, or a Republican U.S. senator since 1994.
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Yet when it comes to the Legislature, several suburban districts west of the mountains have become battlegrounds. In the past few years, Republicans have picked up House seats on the Olympic Peninsula, in Vancouver, Puyallup and — last week — the Federal Way area.
Going into the 2016 legislative session, Democrats will be a long way from 2008, when they controlled the House 63-35 and held the Senate 32-17.
Republicans credit their recent victories to a range of reasons, from the national political climate to recruiting strong local candidates.
With such a slim majority in the House, Democrats will need to forge more consensus to pass bills, said Cliff Traisman, a state lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters, which donated to Gregory’s campaign.
“It’s very, very hard to push a single agenda through if vote margins are so tight,” he said. “Unless of course it’s an issue that has bipartisan appeal.”
GOP tail winds
Keith Schipper, who managed Hickel’s campaign and has worked on campaigns in which the GOP picked up contested state Senate seats, said candidate recruitment has played a key role in the Republicans’ success.
“We’ve been great at finding people that fit their district, have good stories to tell and also bring something to Olympia that just isn’t there,” Schipper said.
Chris Vance, a former chairman of the Washington State Republican Party currently running for U.S. Senate, said House Republicans have improved their political operation, including recruitment, but are also running better campaigns.
He also contends that political equilibrium is coming back into balance after 2006 and 2008 elections gave Democrats their large House majority. Also, Vance said, voters are looking for change after nearly eight years of President Obama.
There’s a larger point in that last argument. Going back at least as far as Harry Truman in 1944, the party that controls the White House almost always loses governorships and congressional and state legislative seats over their time in office, according to an analysis by Politico.
In Washington state, the massive House Democratic majority of 2008 came at the tail-end of George W. Bush‘s presidency. And Democrats held 65 state House seats in 1993 — after 12 years of Republican presidents.
Toward the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, Republicans held the state House 57-41. Shortly after, Democrats and Republicans in Olympia split the chamber 49-49.
Jamal Raad, spokesman for the Washington State Democratic Party, credits Republicans with recruiting quality legislative candidates. But Raad argues that this is borne of necessity, because the GOP can’t win statewide races so “they’re putting all their eggs in one basket.”
Raad and Traisman also point to the lower turnout in off-year elections like 2015. Such years stand in contrast to presidential contests, which in a left-leaning state like Washington can bring out more Democrats.
Case in point: In the Federal Way-area district that Gregory lost last week, 60 percent of voters in 2012 chose Obama over Republican Mitt Romney for president.
Voters that year also re-elected Democratic Rep. Roger Freeman. It was Freeman’s death that prompted Gregory’s appointment to the seat in January and this fall’s special election.
But Obama and Freeman each earned more votes in the district in the 2012 election than all of the ballots cast in last week’s legislative election there.
Raad says next year’s elections — featuring races for president, governor and U.S. senator — will boost Democratic turnout.
“We look forward to facing them next year, when more folks are voting,” he said. “That’s when we have our advantage.”
Policy and consensus
Their diminished House majority means there’s no room to lose Democrats when trying to win tough votes. That may have been in play earlier this year, when Gov. Jay Inslee’s carbon-regulation proposal never reached a floor vote in the House.
When it came to that proposal, which would have enacted a carbon cap-and-trade program, “there weren’t enough votes to get it through,” said Traisman, of Washington Conservation Voters.
House Democrats this year did pass a minimum-wage hike and a paid sick-leave bill on strict party-line votes — and could plausibly do so again next year. Another bill, intended to strengthen equal-pay laws for women, passed the House with a larger margin when a handful of Republicans also supported it.
But all three of those bills were shut out from committee and floor votes in the GOP-controlled state Senate, and it’s highly doubtful the Senate would have approved legislation regulating carbon emissions.
Still other hot-button bills — like gun-control and gun-rights proposals — didn’t get floor votes in either chamber.
Even with a larger majority, Democrats would still have to wrestle with the Republican-controlled state Senate. For now, the path to success in Olympia may be limited to issues on which the parties can find consensus.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, notes that much of the legislation that passes in Olympia — at least right now — has bipartisan support.
Lawmakers this year passed a two-year budget that boosted education spending and cut college tuition, a transportation package funded by a gas-tax increase, changes to the medical and recreational marijuana systems, and legislation strengthening mental-health laws.
“Most bills that pass,” Sullivan said, “they have a majority of votes from both parties in both chambers.”