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Fueled by gobs of money and frustration over the past two legislative sessions, Democrats are on a quest to regain control of the state Senate.

To get the job done, they just might have to beat … a Democrat.

Specifically, Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Mason County commissioner and small-business owner in Potlatch. His decision two years ago to start caucusing with Senate Republicans, along with state Sen. Rodney Tom, galled Democratic Party officials — and left them counting the days until the 2014 election.

The Sheldon-Tom-GOP alliance upended the Democrats’ razor-thin majority, gave control of the chamber to the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus, and made life a lot tougher for Gov. Jay Inslee.

Sheldon is being challenged by Irene Bowling, backed by the party as the “real” Democrat in District 35. A win there Tuesday and another pickup elsewhere would put the Democrats back in charge in the Senate. Combine that with the party’s continued control of the House, and Gov. Jay Inslee would have an easier time developing and enacting his climate agenda. Democrats also would like to pass a host of bills approved by the House in recent years that later died in the Senate.

“If Democrats can regain the state Senate, they’ll be on much more solid footing working with the governor and House,” said Matt Barreto, professor of political science at the University of Washington.

Tom, who became the coalition’s majority leader, is retiring this year, which has left Sheldon to face the ire from his Democratic Party, which is targeting District 35 and a handful of other Puget Sound region seats, including Districts 28, 30, 42 and 45.

The battle between the two parties has pushed huge amounts of TV ads and mailers into tiny legislative districts. California billionaire Tom Steyer has put $1.25 million into state races to elect Democrats more friendly to climate change. Republicans, backed by some out-of-state money and in-state contributions, have matched those numbers.

And for Sheldon, the race also means a referendum on his maverick identity.

“I think that in this state, you define yourself,” he said. “We don’t have party loyalty tests, much as the Democrats would like.”

Progress hampered

When it comes to taking control of the Senate, Democrats inevitably list a number of bills that passed the House but died in the Majority Coalition Caucus: transportation-funding package, a bill to strengthen the safety of oil transportation, a bill that would have restricted certain toxic flame retardants in consumer products.

Because of the coalition, “We have been unable to make progress on the issues that citizens care about,” said Clifford Traisman, state lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters, the latter of which has endorsed Bowling and other Democrats contesting the Majority Coalition Caucus.

Traisman added that the coalition also has hampered attempts to talk about climate change.

“In the big picture, we’re trying to ensure that we can have a healthy conversation with both the House and the Senate with how we tackle climate pollution,” he said.

Kris Johnson, president of the Association of Washington Business, talks up how the coalition has managed the budget process. The association has endorsed Sheldon and several Majority Coalition Caucus incumbents.

“The Majority Coalition Caucus has done a really good job of highlighting the need for fiscal responsibility,” Johnson said, adding that, “this past Legislature put a billion dollars in education funding without college tuition going up.”

Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, says Sheldon’s claim of bipartisanship doesn’t tell the whole picture. Nelson, chairwoman of the Washington State Democratic Campaign, says caucuses that have enough support inside their own parties could just pass their own budgets without reaching across the aisle.

“They can call it bipartisan,” she said.

But Sheldon emphasizes the bipartisanship of recent budget votes, pointing out that Democrats voted along with Republicans to approve them.

“They voted for the budget — they weren’t fooled; no one pulled the wool over their eyes,” Sheldon said.

He calls for cutting government spending by downsizing executive jobs within state government and cutting regulations to spur job growth. He says he’d support a transportation package that gave a fair share of funding to projects in rural areas and was put up to a public vote.

Sheldon is being challenged by Irene Bowling for the 35th District seat, which, along with Mason County, includes parts of Kitsap and Thurston counties.

Bowling is a 57-year-old trained pianist who runs a music-instruction studio in Bremerton; she is, for her part, optimistic. She beat Sheldon in the August three-way primary, earning 35 percent of the vote to Sheldon’s 33 percent, with a Republican candidate taking the remaining 31 percent.

She criticizes the recent budgets that have come out of Olympia as being built on accounting tricks and she insists the coalition does not represent bipartisanship.

“Bipartisan to me is not one Democrat among all the Republicans,” she said, referring to Sheldon.

Lawmakers next session must come up with billions of dollars in education funding to satisfy the state Supreme Court ruling known as the McCleary decision. The court earlier this year found the Legislature in contempt for not yet making enough progress toward funding K-12 education, and Bowling says she worries that if it retained power, the Majority Coalition Caucus would cut spending on social safety-net programs to find the money required.

Bowling proposes to raise revenue by eliminating some tax exemptions for businesses, which wouldn’t raise enough money for the McCleary funding. But she says she doesn’t want to raise taxes.

“If we’re going to change our tax system in any radical way … it has to be the will of the people, it has to be something that people agree on” Bowling said.

GOP finances Sheldon

Republicans understand how important Sheldon is to preserving the coalition, and they have donated accordingly, sending Sheldon about a fifth of the $480,000 he has raised. Bowling has raised $320,000.

“We’ve been very public and out-front about supporting Sen. Sheldon with direct support from the caucus,” said Brent Ludeman, executive director of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.

Independent groups also are spending more money on Sheldon, spending $650,000 in support of him and against Bowling. Much of that money is from Washington Association of Realtors and the Building Industry Association. Bowling has received about $390,000 in favorable independent expenditures.

On Tuesday, Sheldon stood with a handful of Republican Party officials in the Temple of Justice in Olympia to denounce independent spending against him.

The GOP had filed a campaign-finance complaint against an outside group affiliated with a national Democratic campaign arm that has been sending mailers to Republicans. The mailers highlight Sheldon’s votes to expand health-care access, fund women’s reproductive rights and grant in-state tuition for some undocumented immigrant children. The idea is to depress Republican turnout and help Bowling gather enough votes to win.

The swarm of political ads isn’t unique to Sheldon’s district. The fight for power has money flowing in at record-setting sums for the battleground races. Money from California billionaire Steyer is pouring into at least three of them.

The race for the District 45 Senate seat between Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, and Democrat Matt Isenhower will go down as the most the expensive state legislative race among campaigns stretching back to 1976, according to state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) records. Their two campaigns have raised a combined $1.4 million — with an additional $1.3 million being spent by independent groups helping the candidates. The $957,000 raised by Hill’s campaign is the second-highest fundraising total for a single state Senate candidate since 1976.

At least $400,000 of the independent spending in the race comes courtesy of Steyer, who is looking to unseat Hill; Republican Party money has been spent in large increments to offset that spending.

Democrats are also targeting District 28 Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, a former House member who was appointed in 2013 to the Senate.

O’Ban is being challenged by Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood, for the seat. Steyer money has flowed in to this race in support of Green, though O’Ban has raised $710,000, about twice as much as Green. That number puts O’Ban on track to have the fourth-highest fundraising total since 1976, according to PDC records.

Some tough races

Another Democrat retiring this year, Sen. Tracey Eide of Federal Way, is creating a heated race in the 30th District. Former Democratic House member Mark Miloscia is running as a Republican against Democrat Shari Song. Song, a real-estate broker, has outraised Miloscia by a small margin — she has raised $397,000 to Miloscia’s $380,000 — though she lost to him by 14 points in the August primary.

Nelson and Ludeman both acknowledge it would be more difficult for Democratic challenger and former Bellingham City Councilmember Seth Fleetwood to unseat Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, in the 42nd District. But while Ericksen has outraised Fleetwood, $495,000 to $415,000, more independent-expenditure money in this race, including Steyer money, supports Fleetwood.

Another race considered less likely to change hands is the seat held by Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who edged out Republican opponent Jim Kellett, 52 to 48 percent in the August primary.

But for all the money and effort, Barreto, the UW professor, says he doesn’t think it will make a whole lot of difference. Democrats aren’t being perceived well this year, he says, and there doesn’t seem to be much momentum on either side for a big change.

“I know that the Democrats are pushing very, very hard on those swing Senate seats,” Barreto said, adding later, “The best prediction would be that the status quo will remain.”

Joseph O’Sullivan: 360-236-8268 or josullivan@seattletimes.com.