With Democrats currently in control of the state House and governor’s office, the state Senate could be Republicans’ last, best chance to exert influence in Olympia. Just four races, out of 26, will likely decide control of the Senate. Here’s a look at them.
Washington state Senate races have been hit with a deluge of money in recent weeks, with the vast majority focused on just four contests that could decide control of the closely divided chamber.
Nearly $8 million has been spent in those four races — in districts on the Eastside, the Vancouver area and one including Joint Base Lewis-McChord — with outside groups outspending the candidates themselves by more than 70 percent.
Spending in this year’s 22 other state Senate races totals about $3.7 million, less than half the total in the four hotly contested races.
Republicans currently control the Senate, with a functional 26-23 majority. Barring any surprise results, Democrats need to win three of the four contested seats — three of which are currently held by Republicans — to take back control of the chamber.
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With Democrats holding the House and governor’s office — and trying to maintain that control — the Senate could prove to be Republicans’ best chance to exert influence in Olympia, as the Legislature looks to write a multibillion-dollar budget and come up with billions more in new school funding to satisfy a Supreme Court mandate.
41st Legislative District
More than $2.4 million — the most of any legislative race in Washington this year — has been spent on the Senate race in the 41st District, which stretches from Mercer Island to Sammamish.
The part-time job they are fighting for pays about $47,000 a year.
Just since ballots were sent out two weeks ago, outside groups have spent more than $400,000 on ads and mailers attacking Republican state Sen. Steve Litzow, the incumbent.
Litzow is a “partisan” and “part of the problem” who is “hoping to confuse voters,” the mailers blare.
Outside groups have spent nearly $370,000 over that same time period attacking Lisa Wellman, Litzow’s Democratic challenger.
Wellman is a “failed CEO” who is “unprepared” and “fuzzy with the truth,” the mailers scream.
Litzow has raised more money than any other legislative candidate, but both candidates’ spending has been dwarfed by the outside groups.
Litzow’s outside support comes mostly from a group called Working Families, funded by the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national, mostly corporate-funded group.
Wellman’s comes mostly from a group called New Direction PAC, funded by union-supported state Democratic Party soft-money groups.
Litzow won his seat handily in 2012, despite Barack Obama’s winning nearly 70 percent of the vote in King County.
This year the influence of the presidential race may prove a bigger hill to climb.
Wellman is voting for Hillary Clinton, and Obama recently recorded an ad for her.
Wellman says her “background aligns with folks within the district.” The first sentence on her website tells you that she is a Democrat and Litzow is a Republican. Litzow’s website basically ignores party affiliation.
In the presidential race, Litzow is bucking not just his party’s nominee, but his entire party. He say he’s writing in former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, for president.
Wellman is eager to talk about how the race could tip control of the Senate to Democratic, calling it a motivating factor for her. Litzow, who raised the hackles of Democrats by using their pictures in mailers without permission, prefers talking about “bipartisan accomplishments.”
Litzow’s work on education — in particular his sponsorship of a bill preserving charter schools in Washington — has earned him the support of an outside group called Stand For Children Washington, which has spent more than $150,000 supporting his re-election.
5th Legislative District
Stand For Children Washington is also involved in another hotly contested Senate race, this one in eastern King County where Democratic incumbent Mark Mullet is trying to hold off Republican state Rep. Chad Magendanz.
But Stand For Children may be the only group spending big money on Washington Senate races that does not appear to care who controls the chamber.
The group, and another organization it funds called Great Schools, Great Kids, have spent more than $150,000 supporting Mullet, the Democrat, even while they support Litzow, a Republican, in the 41st.
Mullet was a co-sponsor, with Litzow, on the charter-schools bill.
“We’re going to work with whoever is in the Senate,” said Deborah Jaquith, a Stand For Children spokeswoman. “We don’t have a preference.”
Many others do.
Mullet has been hit with nearly $610,000 in negative ads from outside groups, almost all of it from Working Families, the group funded by the Republican State Leadership Committee.
Similarly, Magendanz has been the target of more than $315,000 in outside negative ads, almost all of them funding by New Direction PAC, the Democratic group.
Mullet says control of the Senate is not on the minds of his constituents. His conversations with them tend to focus on things like getting a new turf field in a park, or an extra lane on I-90.
But, last weekend, when he met supporters at a pizza place in Issaquah Highlands to go knock on doors, about half had come from outside his district.
“They’re totally aware of the influence of this race,” he said.
Magendanz sees Republican control of the Senate as a check on the governor’s office and the House.
“I think people are happy with the results they’ve gotten with a bipartisan Legislature,” he said. “It’s not always the fastest solution.”
Both candidates agree on one thing:
“Donald Trump is not a popular man,” said Magendanz, who said he voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson for president. “The top of our ticket has been a huge liability for those of us running down ticket.”
Said Mullet: “I honestly think I’m going to have to send Donald Trump a Christmas card for all he’s done for me in this election.”
17th Legislative District
The open Senate seat in the 17th District, in Vancouver, has been the second-most expensive Senate race in Washington this year, trailing only the Mercer Island race, with nearly $2.2 million spent by candidates and outside groups so far.
It pits Republican state Rep. Lynda Wilson against Democrat Tim Probst, a former House member who lost narrowly in 2012 to Sen. Don Benton, who is retiring.
A former chairman of the state Republican Party, Benton has held the seat since 1997. He also leads the Trump campaign in Washington.
As befits his more conservative district (Obama and Mitt Romney ran to a virtual dead heat in Clark County in 2012), Probst doesn’t talk about party affiliation and the battle for the Senate as readily as his King County colleagues.
“I reject partisan bickering,” he said. “Independents, Democrats and Republicans, we’re all in this together.”
Still, the race has had plenty of partisan bickering.
Probst accused Republicans of running an inaccurate ad about his fundraising. He asked the state’s chief campaign finance watchdog to weigh in. When she did, in his favor, the state Republican Party demanded her resignation.
Probst has faced more negative outside spending than any other legislative candidate — more than $625,000 — almost all of it coming, indirectly, from the Republican State Leadership Committee.
Wilson, a first-term state representative, who’s been hit with $440,000 in negative outside advertising, beat Probst by 50 votes in the August primary.
She co-sponsored a (failed) bill requiring the state Human Rights Commission to repeal its rule guaranteeing bathroom access for transgender people, according to their preference.
Wilson, who initially agreed to an interview but then did not respond to subsequent requests, has been reluctant to talk about whom she supports for president, saying in May she had not made up her mind.
28th Legislative District
Republican Sen. Steve O’Ban won the primary in the 28th District — dominated by Joint Base Lewis-McChord — by seven points, making it perhaps the longest shot for Democrats among the four contested races.
Obama won Pierce County by 11 points in 2012, but O’Ban beat his Democratic challenger that year by a slightly larger margin.
A first-term senator, he touts the recent increase in education funding, the cut in college tuition and an increase in funding for Interstate 5 in his district among his accomplishments. A lawyer, he is a senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian nonprofit active in opposing abortion and same-sex marriage and boosting religion in public life.
O’Ban did not respond to repeated interview requests.
Marisa Peloquin, the Democratic challenger, served for nearly 10 years in the Army and the last 16 years in the Army Reserve, where she is a colonel.
She hesitates to focus too much on where her political race fits into the larger narrative of control of the Senate, preferring to talk to voters about “breaking the gridlock.”
A Clinton supporter, she criticized O’Ban for not making his position on the presidential race clear and for his work with the Alliance Defending Freedom.
“He has just refused to disavow Donald Trump,” Peloquin said. “I think I’m a lot more closely aligned with our voters.”