SEATTLE — Democrats want to win enough seats in the state Senate to shed the influence of conservatives in their ranks, which has made their control of the upper chamber shaky at best. The Republicans see an opportunity to seize the Senate for the first time in a decade.
November’s election will determine the next makeup of the state Legislature, but the main focus will be on the Senate, where Democrats hold a numerical lead of 27 to 22 seats.
However during the last two years, Senate Democrats have seen conservative and moderate colleagues side with Republicans on several key issues, including the all-important budget, essentially ceding oversight to the GOP. Four years ago, on the coattails of President Barack Obama’s victory in Washington state, Democrats took control of the state Senate and the House, including a near super-majority in the House. By 2010, Republicans chipped away at their leads.
About half of the Senate is up for re-election this year and all of the contested races are on the west side of the Cascade Mountains.
If Republican Rob McKenna wins the governor’s race, he’d need a Republican Senate to push his agenda. But should Democrat Jay Inslee prevail, a Republican-controlled Senate would serve as a check, said Kirby Wilbur, GOP state party chair.
“They’d be an obstacle for his plans,” he said.
It’s been 30 years since the Republican Party controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office, Wilbur said.
Democrats, however, like their chances to maintain control in Olympia.
“The primary made us feel good,” said Michael King, executive director of Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, who added that chatter that the GOP could win the Senate has been toned down.
“We have an energized Democratic base right now,” King said. “You see the Romney-Ryan ticket and their inability to connect with voters — it’s really trickling down into these races.”
In King County’s 5th District, which covers eastern King County territory such as Issaquah and Maple Valley, Democrats are hoping to gain the Senate seat vacated by Republican Cheryl Pflug, who had a public fall out with her party.
In May, Pflug withdrew her name from the race after being offered a job by Gov. Chris Gregoire, but announced her departure just a few days after the candidate-filing period came to a close. That did not allow the GOP to recruit a candidate. Democrat Mark Mullet won the primary with 52 percent of the vote and has also been endorsed by Pflug.
In the Vancouver area, incumbent Republican state Sen. Don Benton is being challenged by state Rep. Tim Probst. While Benton took the primary with 890 votes, the Democrat challenger was endorsed by the local newspaper — The Columbian — and Democrats are feeling confident they can unseat the incumbent.
In the 10th District, which covers all of Camano Island and parts of Skagit and Snohomish counties, Republican state Rep. Barbara Bailey received more votes in the primary than longtime incumbent Democrat Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen. That gave the GOP confidence that Haugen is in trouble.
Barbara “has got a good shot. She’s running on the issue of change. Mary Margaret is vulnerable,” Wilbur said.
Republicans are also mounting a challenge to Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, who represents parts of northern King County and south Snohomish County.
Democrats have all but conceded the 25th District in Pierce County, where conservative Democrat Jim Kastama left to run for Secretary of State. Kastama was one of the Democrat senators who often voted with Republicans and GOP Rep. Bruce Dammeier is likely to move up to the Senate.
The lead Democrats have in the House is not expected to be threatened this year. Wilbur said Republicans would have to win eight seats.