The Republican Party is widely expected to fail in its goal of picking up the three seats needed for a majority in the state Senate. But Democrats' efforts to control legislation may be frustrated by some of their own who cross party lines.

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For the Republican Party, control of the state Senate is tantalizingly close.

The GOP just has to pick up three seats, one a gimme, the other two currently held by Democratic incumbents who won less than half the vote in the primary.

But for all of Republican leaders’ professed optimism — “I think we’re going to get control,” says state Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur — the prize may be more elusive than attainable.

First of all, knocking off two powerful, veteran senators, Mary Margaret Haugen and Rosemary McAuliffe, is no easy task.

The job became even more difficult when Republican Sen. Cheryl Pflug, in the 5th Legislative District, resigned after the filing deadline to accept a nonlegislative appointment, leaving her party with a candidate she refused to endorse, instead accusing him of “egregious and disreputable behavior.”

In contrast to Wilbur’s predictions of a GOP majority, Sen. Ed Murray, Democratic campaign co-chair, predicts his party will “pick up a few Republican seats when the dust settles.”

If Democrats widen their 27-22 majority, Murray says, they may also get “a more workable philosophical majority” — meaning Republicans will have a harder time finding enough fiscally conservative Democrats to provide key swing votes, as they did with the budget agreement last year.

Other observers expect reality will lie somewhere between the optimistic predictions of the two parties’ leaders, with the GOP likely achieving a net gain of one seat.

Former state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance believes a one-seat gain for Republicans would mean a Senate that Democrats couldn’t easily control. “Philosophically, the Senate is going to be very conservative. It’s going to be very hard for the Democrats to hold on to it.”

When Republicans and Democrats talk about districts in play, there’s only one whose outcome they seem to agree on. That’s the open, Puyallup-centered 25th District seat, where Republican Rep. Bruce Dammeier seems certain to defeat Democrat Eric Herde for the position vacated by Sen. Jim Kastama.

Vance sees GOP Rep. Barbara Bailey ousting Sen. Haugen, a Democrat who’s served 20 years in the mostly Republican 10th Legislative District, including Whidbey and Camano islands, La Conner and Stanwood.

“That’s where the good news ends for Republicans,” said Vance, explaining it will be tough for Dawn McCravey, a Northshore School Board member, to knock off five-term Sen. McAuliffe in the 1st Legislative District in North King and South Snohomish counties.

“I would bet money,” Vance said, that Democrat Mark Mullet defeats Republican Brad Toft for Pflug’s former 5th District seat, which includes Snoqualmie, North Bend and parts of Issaquah and Maple Valley.

Democrat Senate leaders say — and Republicans doubt — that Rep. Tim Probst, a Democrat, could replace Republican Sen. Don Benton, who has represented the Vancouver, Wash., area’s 17th District in the state Senate since 1996. That race intensified this week, when an independent committee with Democratic ties reported spending more than $100,000 to defeat Benton, and a Republican-affiliated committee spent $36,000 against Probst.

Some Democrats are also hopeful about cranberry farmer and former Marine Bruce Lachney’s chances of defeating Republican Sen. Randi Becker in Pierce County’s 2nd District.

Sen. Rodney Tom, of Medina, one of the so-called “roadkill Democrats” who voted with Republicans on the 2013-15 budget, says of Democratic hopes for extending the party’s majority by two or more seats: “You’re smoking dope if you think you’ll get to 29 or 30 Democrats. That’s not in the cards.”

One wild-card is the 41st District state Senate seat that covers Mercer Island and south Bellevue. It is held by Republican moderate Steve Litzow, who is under fire for a vote he cast during the budget coup. That vote on reproductive parity supposedly pumped up the chances of his Democratic challenger, Maureen Judge.

Even though the swing-vote moderates lost Kastama, who left the Senate to run unsuccessfully for secretary of state, Tom said he expects the remaining members of the informal roadkill group to again decide some key votes. “Now there’s enough of us in the middle that we can actually say, ‘Hey, guys’ — the crazies on the right and the crazies on the left — you’re not going to get your way,’ and we’re going to drive home a solution that moves the state forward.”

Murray said Kastama’s departure from the Senate means “the situation is improved” for Democrats.

Kastama said he was uncertain how the new Senate will function: “My hope is, regardless of whether the Republicans control the Senate or the Democrats control the Senate, there is a more centrist philosophical majority that will address these big issues.”

Those big issues next year will include narrowing a large, but not catastrophic, budget gap, and fully funding public education, as ordered earlier this year by the state Supreme Court.

Here are some of the races that could decide the state Senate balance of power:

1st District: A Republican target. Longtime Senate education committee Chair McAuliffe, D-Bothell, is facing McCravey, R-Bothell, in an election turning largely on school issues. The Washington Education Association’s independent spending in support of McAuliffe has, so far, been overwhelmed by the education-reform group Stand for Children’s big spending to defeat her. A traditionally Democratic district.

5th District: Democrats could gain a seat. Former Sen. Pflug’s unexpected resignation set the stage for this race between Brad Toft, R-Snoqualmie Valley, and Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah. Pflug, a Republican, endorsed Mullet, leading Toft to claim a backroom deal between Pflug and Gov. Chris Gregoire to deliver the district to Democrats. Toft has been hurt by his suggestion to a judge that he wasn’t a party in a lawsuit he wanted sealed and by claims of college degrees he didn’t earn. Republican-leaning district.

10th District: Veteran Democrat fights for her political life. Rep. Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, is challenging veteran Transportation Committee Chair Haugen, D-Camano Island. Haugen touts her record of bringing money for better ferry service but lost some support when she became the critical 25th Senate vote in favor of gay marriage. Conservative district, but has a sent a Democrat to the state Senate for years.

17th District: Democrats are hopeful. Sparks are flying in this matchup between Sen. Benton, R-Vancouver, and Rep. Probst, D-Vancouver. Benton threatened to sue Probst for “false and misleading” statements about Benton’s voting record and the circumstances under which he was replaced as chairman of the state Republican Party. Probst has stood by his claims. Swing district.

25th District: Near-certain Republican gain. Sen. Kastama, a Democrat, left the seat open when he decided to run for statewide office. Rep. Dammeier, R-Puyallup, trounced Democrat Herde, a 21-year-old college student from Tacoma, in the primary. Dammeier has raised $37 for every campaign dollar collected by Herde. Swing district.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com