Former state Senate leader Rodney Tom is going into next month's 48th Legislative District election in the unfamiliar role of underdog as he competes with incumbent Sen. Patty Kuderer for the seat he left in 2014.
A political comeback attempt by former state Senate leader Rodney Tom is sputtering, decreasing the likelihood of a rare swing vote entering the chamber and putting Democrats on track to maintain control.
Tom is going into next month’s election for the 48th Legislative District Senate seat in the unfamiliar role of underdog. He’s running for the seat he held before leaving in 2014 to take care of his elderly father.
Since the Aug. 7 primaries, he has received only $9,400 in contributions, according to campaign finance reports. His opponent, incumbent Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, has raised six times as much money over that same period. Kuderer beat Tom in the primary by about 30 percentage points.
Despite running as Democrat, Tom draws most of his financial support from Republicans: He helped them wrestle control of the Senate away from the Democrats in 2012. He’s been shunned by the Democratic party since then, but he’s also built a track record as a swing voter, mostly siding with Republicans on fiscal issues such as tax reform and with Democrats on issues such as gun control and LGBT and abortion rights.
Only one other member of the 49-seat body has broken ranks with his party as much as Tom. That’s Tim Sheldon, another Democrat who’s been distanced from the party.
“Potentially, he could play that critical swing role again, although it would be more unlikely this time around because I think Democrats will gain seats this election,” said Cornell Clayton, a political-science professor at Washington State University.
Although campaign contributions have slowed, Republican-leaning groups had bet heavily on Tom going into the primaries. Tom’s campaign benefited from almost $370,000 in advertising paid for by outside groups. More than $320,000 of that came from Citizens for Progress Enterprise, a political action committee that has a record of supporting Republican candidates. The campaign hasn’t received any contributions for advertising since the primaries.
Last year, the group spent more than $1 million in favor of unsuccessful Republican candidate Jinyoung Lee Englund in the 45th District special Senate election. In 2016, the group spent around $400,000 helping Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, in his unsuccessful re-election bid.
Kuderer has not seen the same support in advertising, an indication that liberal PACs don’t consider Tom a threat, according to Todd Schaefer, political science professor at Central Washington University. If Tom is elected, the impact of how he votes depends on how many seats Democrats win in November, Schaefer said.
“If the Democrats win big then it won’t matter, but in that case he probably won’t get elected, either,” Schaefer said. “If he got in, I really think they could isolate him, stick him on crappy committees or ignore him.”
First elected to the Legislature as a Republican in 2002, Tom became a Democrat a few years later, citing a difference in beliefs on social issues.
In a phone interview, he said he’s unconcerned about the dip in campaign contributions, blaming national political divisiveness over issues such as the confirmation process of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh for stealing voter attention.
“We have enough money in the bank to do what we are planning on doing,” Tom said. “With the Kavanaugh hearings, there has been so much political noise. But I’ve won four times, so whatever I have done has worked. From a democracy standpoint I think it is important to have a challenger” to Kuderer.
Despite her commanding win in the primary, Kuderer’s campaign has shown few signs of slowing down. Since the Aug. 7 primaries, Kuderer has raised around $65,000 in campaign contributions.
A political action committee, New Direction, spent over $120,000 on advertising in support of her since the start of her campaign for re-election. New Direction’s biggest donors are the Harry Truman Fund and the Kennedy Fund, both affiliated with the Democratic Party.
“We are out campaigning every day, working to earn the support of voters,” Kuderer said in an email. “I do not take my constituents for granted and will continue to campaign hard through election day to make sure we win in November.”
Voters will get a chance to hear Tom and Kuderer discuss their platforms at a League of Women Voters forum on Oct. 30 at the Redmond King County Library. The event starts at 6:30 p.m.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated in the 7th paragraph the time frame of outside funding for advertisements supporting Tom’s campaign. The contributions were made before the primaries, not afterward as previously stated. This update corrects that error and reports the total contributions made by those groups prior to the primaries.