October 21, 2016
Open your social media feeds, and it will look like there are only two people running for office in November.
But 222 candidates are currently vying to represent their districts in the Washington statehouse. The balance of power these races determine will have a profound impact on some major issues facing the state, including the multibillion-dollar elephant in the room — how legislature allocates more money to public schools, in compliance with a ruling from the state Supreme Court.
During the last session, the Republicans and Democrats shared control of the statehouse. Republicans controlled the Senate with a thin two-seat majority while Democrats controlled the House of Representatives by a single seat. With leads this narrow, control of both chambers is up-for-grabs this November.
According to a Crosscut analysis of every state legislative race, neither party has guaranteed majorities in either legislative chamber, but Republicans have more seats in play.
In the 98-member House of Representatives, nine seats are rated as toss-ups, eight of them held by the Republicans during the last legislative session. The Democrats have 48 seats rated safe or close to it, while the Republicans only have 41 in these categories.
The Senate has a similar story. Of the 26 seats being contested this year, both parties have 11 that are likely to go their way. The remaining four seats are rated as toss-ups. Three of those seats are from districts previously held by Republicans.
This analysis looks at a variety of factors, including primary results, money raised, and incumbency status (full methodology at the end of the article). Without accurate polling information, this analysis highlights battleground districts, but does not attempt to predict how those districts will vote.
Republicans have controlled the Washington State Senate since 2013, when they pulled off an electoral coup by forming the Majority Coalition Caucus. This came about when the 23 elected Republicans recruited two Democrats to vote with them on most matters, handing them a majority in the chamber.
The MCC’s power held steady this past legislative session with 25 Republicans and one Democrat. That Democrat, Sen. Tim Sheldon (D- Potlach), is not up for reelection this year. With the Senate likely to remain a close split between Democrats and Republicans following November, Sheldon’s vote continues to be a factor. If he continues to caucus with Republicans, that party only needs two more seats to hold on to the Senate.
Each party is three seats away from control of the Senate.
Three of the four races we’ve rated as up for grabs were previously controlled by Republicans. That could show fertile ground for Democrats to grow into Republican territory, but it also gives Republicans an edge in these races. Political parties usually have advantages in places they have already won.
So where are these races that will determine the future of the Senate?
Legislative District 5
Republican Chad Magendanz, who has served as a representative for the 5th Legislative District since 2012, is a strong challenger for this seat, and has raised over $447,000. Outside groups are investing heavily in this race: Democrat Mark Mullet has had over $82,000 spent to help him and over $400,000 spent against him, while outside groups have spent almost $200,000 campaigning against Magendanz.
Legislative District 10
We nearly put this race in the “likely Republican” column – 51 percent of the primary vote went to incumbent Republican Sen. Barbara Bailey, and her challenger only won 38 percent. But two Democrats split the primary vote, taking over 48 percent of votes together. Angel Homola, Bailey’s Democrat challenger in the general election, has raised over $239,000 and was previously an Island County Commissioner, serving one term before losing in 2012 after reports of a checkered history. Bailey has a long history of representing Island County in Olympia, serving as a state representative for four terms before being elected to her first term as a Senator in 2012. Bailey has raised over $389,000. Before Bailey, the district was held by a Democrat.
Legislative District 17
When Republican Sen. Don Benton vacated his seat to become a paid member of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, this became an open Senate race. Two strong candidates stepped up to replace Benton: Republican Lynda Wilson and Democrat Tim Probst. Probst represented this district in the house from 2009 to 2013, and lost to Benton for this Senate seat in 2012 by a measly 78 votes. Wilson is a one-term representative from the 17th district and has raised over $414,000. Probst has raised over $357,000 and both candidates have been targeted by outside groups. Over $400,000 has been spent against Probst, while Wilson has had over $255,000 spent against her. While Wilson beat Probst in the primary, it was only by 50 votes, and this is anyone’s race.
Legislative District 41
Republican Sen. Steve Litzow is fighting for his third term against Democrat Lisa Wellman, who beat him in the primary by 456 votes. Litzow has been at the forefront of the Republican response to the state’s education funding issues, and has been targeted by the state’s teachers union for defeat. However, the incumbent has raised a whopping $633,200, over $150,000 more than any other candidate running for the legislature, and over double Wellman’s haul. The district has two Democratic representatives and voted overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama in 2012.
House of Representatives
Democrats have controlled the state’s House of Representatives for over a decade, but the party only held 50 seats this year. While they can’t net any losses if they want to keep control, our analysis shows that their lead is likely to be maintained or even grow.
Democrats have 48 seats rated as either safe or close to it, while Republicans only have 41 seats matching that description. Of the remaining nine “toss-up” districts, eight were previously held by Republicans.
Like in the Senate, previously holding a seat can give Republicans an advantage, but it’s not a great sign to statewide conservatives to see so many close calls in what was Republican territory last year.
So which districts will determine who holds a majority in the House of Representatives?
Legislative District 5
Republican Rep. Jay Rodne has held this seat for 12 years, but with his district in the crosshairs of two other heated legislative fights, this may be the toughest election he’s faced. Democrat Jason Ritchie has branded himself as a middle-of-the-road Democrat, vowing to oppose any form of a state income tax, and his moderate stances are likely why the Seattle Times endorsed him in an August editorial. Rodne has also gotten himself in hot water over some Islamophobic statements last year following the November terrorist attacks in Paris.
The other house seat from this district has become a competitive race after incumbent Republican Chad Magendanz decided to run for state senate. Republican Paul Graves beat Democrat Darcy Burner by 10 points in the August primary, but 52 percent of the primary vote went to Democrats, signaling that this race is very much in play.
Legislative District 17
Position 1 (Parts of Clark County and Vancouver)
Incumbent Republican Rep. Lynda Wilson has her sights on the district’s open Senate seat, putting her current position in play. Republican Vicki Kraft, who works for the same conservative think tank as Wilson’s husband, was the first to announce her candidacy. Sam Kim, who announced his candidacy as a Republican in February only to rebrand himself in May as an “Independent Democrat” over Donald Trump’s rhetoric, won second place in the crowded 6-person primary.
Legislative District 26
Republican Jesse Young, who was appointed to this seat in 2014, faced a primary fight against two Democrats and a fellow Republican. He won first place, but Democrat Larry Seaquist was only 3 percent points behind him, and Democrats pulled in almost the same number of primary votes as Republicans. Seaquist is a very strong challenger – he held this seat from 2007 to 2015. However, Young is winning in the donations race, with over $212,000 raised to Seaquist’s $194,000.
Legislative District 30
Democratic challenger Michael Pellicciotti pulled in nearly 1000 more votes than incumbent Republican Rep. Linda Kochmar in the August Primary. He is a political newcomer, while Kochmar has served in the House since 2012 . But that experience gap hasn’t translated into a big difference in support or in donations, with Pellicciotti pulling in roughly $248,000 to Kochmar’s $247,000. This Federal Way District has sent both Democrats and Republicans to Olympia in the last six years.
Could Federal Way be the scene of two incumbent Republicans being unseated? There are hints this could occur, as incumbent Republican Rep. Teri Hickel received fewer votes than Democrat challenger Kristine Reeves (a thin margin of 10,412 to 10,344 votes). Hickel is ahead in the donations game with roughly $252,000 to Reeves’ $205,000.
Legislative District 35
Republican Incumbent Rep. Daniel Griffey is facing a well-funded challenger in Irene Bowling, who received 45.55 percent of the primary vote and has raised over $164,000, to Griffey’s $87,945. Bowling ran against Tim Sheldon, the district’s senator — who is also a Democrat but votes with the Senate Republicans — in 2014 and lost by about 4,000 votes. This year she is running as an “Independent Democrat.”
Challenger Craig Patti came within 2,300 votes of Incumbent Republican Rep. Drew MacEwen in the primary, and has raised $60,000 more than his opponent. Patti, like his fellow LD 35 challenger Bowling, calls himself an “Independent Democrat.” If Patti and Craig manage to unseat their Republican rivals, Mason County may be the home to a burgeoning independent faction of the Democratic Party, with Sheldon at the helm.
Legislative District 44
Incumbent Democrat Rep. John Lovick was appointed to the House in 2014, and had previously served in the House from 1999 to 2007, including five years as the Speaker Pro Tempore. He is facing a strong challenge from Republican Janice Huxford, who won 46 percent of the primary votes and has raised $245,054 compared to Lovick’s $222,352 raised.
We based our analysis on four factors: vote share from the August 2 primary, campaign donations, incumbency advantage and the voting history of the district. Of the races in play, we created three ratings to show how competitive each race is: safe, likely, and toss-up. The districts highlighted above all fit into the toss-up category.
There are 23 Senate seats not up for election this year, and there’s a chance Senate Democrats will lose two of their own if Sen. Cyrus Habib (D-Bellevue) wins the lieutenant governor race and Sen. Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle) wins her congressional race. But vacancies won’t upset the balance of power. State law requires that the replacement legislator be of the same party as the departing one.
The safe category includes: races where both candidates are of the same party; uncontested races – where there’s only one candidate; or races where an incumbent won more than 60 percent of the primary vote.
The likely rating goes to races where one candidate won a plurality of the primary vote, has a lead in donations and is running in a district with a history of voting for that party. There are three races where one candidate did not win a plurality of the primary vote but we still rated them as the likely winners. These races (a Senate and House race in District 1, and a House seat in District 6) were open races where multiple candidates of one party split their party’s vote, but more votes were cast for their party in the primary, and their party has a history of winning in that district.
The remaining races are rated as toss-ups, where one of the categories above may have been met but there’s enough uncertainty for it to remain in the toss-up category. For example, an incumbent may have won more than 50 percent of the primary vote, but could be facing a well-funded challenger in a district that hasn’t consistently voted for one party.
Reliable polling data would make it easier to rate these races in one direction, but there are no polling firms publicly releasing polling data for these legislative races, like there are for most congressional and executive races. So until ballots begin getting counted, the best we can offer is educated guesswork.