Baseline 08: Washington Legislature

Oregon statehouse

Washington statehouse

The generic look for Washington legislative politics seems to be, will the Democrats solidify gains which in the last couple of cycles have put them in decisive and almost overwhelming control? An early look suggests that if on one hand they’ve pretty much picked off not only the low-hanging but even most of the reasonably accessible fruit, they’re still not necessarily done. And for all the Democratic targets out there, not a lot of them look especially vulnerable.

So. What we have here is the third of three lists covering the legislatures of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, with one covering major offices for the three states coming tomorrow; 10 races each. The numbering logic in similar for all: These are the contests which, from this viewpoint, seem to have the most significance or analytical interest as we look to where Northwest politics goes from here. It isn’t a list of which seats will change parties (though we think there’s a good shot some of them will) or which incumbents are most endangered (among other things, some of these are open seats). Rather: Which contests stand to say the most about local and Northwest politics?

There’s little chance, to be sure, that Republicans will be able to retake the Senate in 08, and odds are less than even (though closer than remote) for a recapture of the House. But the House margins are still close, and every one of those 60 contests will have some significance. And, as is often so, some of these races tell us something apart from what the partisan balance will be: They tell us something about how people see their community and their state.

One other highly cautionary note: Candidate filing doesn’t happen until early June, meaning that surprises in personnel doubtless will continue to unfold. However, we do have early filings with the Public Disclosure Commission to work with, and though those are mainly pro forma filings by incumbents, they are in some cases early indicators.

(The list is below the fold.)

1 House 41-1: Incumbent, Fred Jarrett, D(officially?)-Mercer Island. Last cycle, probably the premier legislative race in Washington pitted incumbent Republican Senator Luke Esser against Representative Rodney Tom – Tom being a newly-minted Democrat who had last been elected as a Republican. Tom won (53.4%), in one of the races that left Democrats with control of the bulk of seats on King County’s east side. In November, one of the few Republicans left in the area, Jarrett, said he would switch parties, and run for the Senate in his district. That Senate race may be of interest, but the general take (which seems about right) is that Jarrett’s personal popularity together with the shifting sands in his district (the seat now is held by a retiring Democrat) likely will result in a decisive win for him. (Jarrett’s win last time, 53.3%, was relatively low for him, especially compared to the other House member there, Judy Clibborn, at 64.7%.) What happens to his current House seat may be of more interest, because Republicans have made clear they’re not going to just let it go, and both parties already have candidates in: Mercer Island City Councilman Steve Litzow, for the Republicans, and Renton School Board member Marcie Maxwell for the Democrats.

2 House 10-1: Incumbent, Chris Strow (departing), R-Freeland. One of a bunch of House Republicans to opt out this year, Strow will be departed by the time the ’08 session starts in mid-January. His replacement isn’t certain, though an edge seems to go to Norma Smith of Clinton. Smith has experience – she has run as a Republican for Congress and for the state Senate, but lost both times – though she has won only for the nonpartisan school board. She may be a solid enough candidate, but in partisan terms this is an iffy district, maybe the iffiest in the state: Its Democratic state senator (Mary Margaret Haugen) and two representatives (Strow and Barbara Bailey) all won their last contested elections with less than 52% of the vote. This is a setup for a hot contest for Whidbey Island and west Skagit.

3 House 6-2: Incumbent, John Ahern, R-Spokane. You might ask, what gives?, since Ahern won his last election in ’06 with 60% of the vote. Answer is that as the last of the Republican central-Spokane district legislators, he’s an obvious heavy target for area Democrats. (We’d guess that’s the moreso since they’re unlikely to get as excited about a U.S. House race in the area as they were the last couple of times.) As widely noted, you have to go back to 1938 for the last time this area sent a Democrat to Olympia – and then in 2006, it sent two, in the other two seats here. And John Driscoll, a health care activist highly visible in the Spokane business community, is already in the race. There are Spokane-area consequences in this one.

4 House 30: Incumbent, Shirley Hankins, R-Richland. Hankins has been a kind of legislative outrider for some time; though a Republican, for years she declined to join in caucus meetings. Now she’s hit a rough patch, fined $4,174 by the Legislative Ethics Board on charges of using her office to help a tire company owned by members of her family. The case has gotten plenty of attention in the Tri-Cities, and it may be that fellow Republicans may be less likely to jump to her defense than to that of some other Republicans. (Which may not be all that much anyway, as Jim Dunn and Richard Curtis could attest.) Hankins has been in the legislature nearly a quarter-century at this point; does she opt out? A fascinating primary could result if she does – or if she doesn’t.

5 House 26-2: Incumbent, Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor. A bunch of new Democrats were elected to the Washington Legislature in 2006, and all of them logically are apt to be targeted by Republicans – you never know where the soft spots may be. Our guess is that Seaquist may be among the most-targeted. First elected last year (with a moderate 55%), he became a somewhat controversial figure during the speedway ruckus during the last session. The other House member here, Patricia Lantz (57% in 2006) is a decade-long veteran. And there’s some talk that Republican Pierce County Council Chairman Terry Lee, who’s not seeking re-election, may run for one of the House seats, and it’s not hard to figure which he might choose. The Gig Harbor-southern Kitsap area is politically marginal, and this contest could be worth watching.

6 House 17-1: Incumbent, Jim Dunn, R-Vancouver. 2007 was a year when Washington Republicans just couldn’t catch a break, and not because of what the Democrats did. Days after the Richard Curtis fiasco came reports about Dunn’s inappropriate comments to a female legislative staffer; what they were isn’t completely clear but evidently serious enough that his own caucus leaders gave him a serious smackdown, with punishment including loss of committee assignments. So what happens when he comes up for re-election in 08 (and he is currently filed with the PDC)? If he stays in the race, a haymaker could emerge in the primary or general or both.

7 Senate 25: Incumbent, Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup. No scandal here, just a district that’s a tougher hold than most for a Democrat – eastern Pierce County. If Republicans are going to launch a counteroffensive this cycle, their logical starting point would be districts like this one. And Kastama’s numbers haven’t been spectacular – 54.3% in 2004, 49.1% in 2000 – though about as good as a Democrat probably can get here.

8 House 18-1: Incumbent, Jaime Herrera, R-Ridgefield. Herrera is the newest legislator, though neither her personal qualities (she has background as a legislative assistant, so won’t be coming in completely cold) nor her newness are the reason this seat – in a so-far solidly Republican district – is here. It has to do with her internationally-known predecessor, Richard Curtis of La Center, whose midnight sexual adventures in Spokane briefly made him the big tabloid story in the state a couple of months ago. Odds are that Herrera gains some points for picking up the pieces in an uncomfortable situation, and glides to election. But also possible that the district, which is definably but not overwhelmingly Republican, has been shaken up a bit too. There is a Democrat running, VaNessa Duplessie, and she has been in the race for months and has campaign events already scheduled for January. A notable race easily could ensue here.

9 House 24-1: Incumbent, Kevin Van De Wege, R-Sequim. Van De Wege was something of a surprise winner in 2006, upsetting long-time Republican Jim Buck. His win virtually shut out Republicans on the Olympic peninsula, in some rural territory that might logically seem to be theirs; this is prospective pushback territory. Buck apparently isn’t interested in a rematch. But Republicans do apparently already have a candidate in Tom Thomas, from Joyce. (He may not necessarily be the only one.) Republicans probably recognize that, in an area like this, the brest opportunity for recapture may be ’08 – or else see Van De Wege solidify his hold.

10 Senate 28: Incumbent, Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood. Pierce County generally seems to be shaping up as a substantial ’08 battleground, and Carrell’s seat easily could be part of that. The reasons are simply statistical. Both House members here are Democrats (albeit that both won with slim margins in ’06), and Carrell’s winning mark in 2004 was 52.3%. No opposition seems to have surfaced yet (Carrell is filed with the PDC), but Democrats scouting for additional Republican targets this year are likely to light on Carrell sooner or later.

CORRECTION The Democrat running for the seat at 18-1 (8th on the list) was inadvertently omitted originally, and has been added.

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