Defending legislative Democrats' record at a South Hill church, Dawn Morrell was steamed. Critics of slashed programs and increased taxes don’t know about the sleepless nights she went through, the tears she cried, the vulnerable people she was trying to protect, the state representative and nurse told the audience at a Sept. 18 candidate forum. Only to be attacked, she said, by Republicans who didn’t work as hard on solutions.
“If I seem a little bit angry, it’s because I think I have post-traumatic stress coming out of the last session,” she said, “The other side of the aisle, when I went over to knock on the door to check on something, they were watching movies.”
Republican incumbents didn’t have much to do early this year as Democrats fought among themselves over what to cut and tax. But GOP candidates have been working hard as they try to unseat incumbents.
Their goal – control of the Legislature – remains a long shot, requiring them to pick up seven seats in the Senate and 13 in the House. But even if the Democratic majorities don’t crumble, they are likely to look different. Many incumbents, including high-ranking leaders Morrell of Puyallup and Sen. Tracey Eide of Redondo, face a nail-biter of an Election Night.
As usual, the biggest battlegrounds are shaping up to be Puget Sound-area suburbs, districts where a large middle of moderate voters can swing Republican or Democrat depending on prevailing conditions.
Republicans have a national wind at their back, as the same economic forces that made the Legislature’s work so hard make Democrats vulnerable nationwide.
“If your district decides to go with the tides,” Morrell said in an interview, “you can’t fix that.”
Results from the Aug. 17 primary show that some incumbent Democrats may fall victim to the forces of change. Unlike other states where primaries are restricted to party registrants, Washington’s “top-two” primary system is open to all voters, giving a preview of the general election. Another quirk puts even two-candidate races on the primary ballot, essentially providing an early head-to-head poll for November.
In addition to Morrell, who as majority caucus chairwoman runs the meetings where Democrats strategize, other Democrats finishing under 50 percent in the primary included the House’s top budget writer, Rep. Kelli Linville of Bellingham, and its capital budget chairman, Rep. Hans Dunshee of Snohomish.
Budget gurus Rep. Ross Hunter and Sen. Rodney Tom polled better, but both Medina Democrats are in tight races. So are committee chairpersons Rep. Troy Kelley of Tacoma, Rep. Kathy Haigh of Shelton and Rep. Geoff Simpson of Covington. And Sen. Jean Berkey of Everett, who chairs a panel on banks, insurance and housing, was defeated in the primary, though she’s challenging the election results in court.
Rep. Tom Campbell of Roy – the only Republican with a gavel, as chairman of an environmental health committee – will be unseated unless he can make a dramatic comeback from an anemic 41 percent showing in a two-way primary. The winner of that 2nd District race will be a Republican, but the outcome still matters to the parties. J.T. Wilcox, who until recently helped run Wilcox Farms, appears likely to be a more reliable vote for his party than maverick Campbell.
There’s no doubt the national concern about the economy is “going to cream some incumbents,” said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University.
But he said Democrats could do better than they did in the primary, when GOP turnout was likely boosted by a marquee U.S. Senate race that saw Dino Rossi fend off his fellow Republican challengers to Sen. Patty Murray.
“Across the state it’s hard to read anything into the primaries, considering that was probably an election that meant more to Republicans than Democrats,” Donovan said.
Incumbents aren’t letting go without a well-financed fight. Challengers lag in fundraising in most South Sound races, in which at least three incumbents have raised more than $200,000, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, is one of three legislative candidates statewide to raise more than $300,000 so far.
VETERAN OF 1994
One of the highest-ranking lawmakers fighting for her political life this election season is Eide, the majority floor leader who controls the flow of legislation through the Senate.
Like fellow power players Linville and Dunshee, Eide has been here before. All three lost their House seats in 1994 when Republicans took over the chamber, riding a national wave that brought the GOP to power in Congress.
It’s not hard to see potential parallels. “I think the atmosphere is similar. Certainly the conservatives are charged up,” said Steve McNey, campaign manager for Eide’s opponent, Tony Moore, whom Mc-Ney called a proud conservative. “I think there’s a lot of things the leadership like Tracey had to vote for that are not popular with the public.”
Eide, a commercial landlord from Redondo, voted for the key budget and tax bills, including suspension of voter-approved Initiative 960, which had kept lawmakers from raising taxes without support of a two-thirds majority.
The suspension allowed lawmakers to raise nearly $800 million in new tax revenue from sources such as service businesses, banks and out-of-state firms, and the sale of cigarettes, soda pop, candy, bottled water and beer. Democrats say the increases were necessary to avoid cuts even deeper than the $5 billion they say they’ve slashed in three years.
Eide doesn’t deny it’s another tough year, but says she was a new legislator in 1994 and is well-known now as the driving force behind laws that allowed school levies to pass with just a majority of voters, that restricted teen drivers, and that banned talking on cell phones and text-messaging while driving.
“And unfortunately, my opponent has no solutions, none,” Eide said. “Lower taxes and put more money into education. Well, I’d love to do that too, but is that doable?”
Moore said commitments to education can be maintained even in bad economic times, by taking money from other places in the budget. He said he can’t say from outside exactly where those cuts would come.
Among his goals for school funding is obtaining money to standardize the way school staff members and teachers are paid across the state, an issue he knows as president of the Federal Way School Board. The district’s fair-funding lawsuit lost in court, and Eide’s proposals to address the pay differences have failed, which Moore says shows her clout hasn’t helped.
Primary voters in the 30th District preferred Eide to Moore by only 363 votes out of 21,727 cast.
Morrell’s re-election hopes appear to be in even more doubt. She received just 40 percent of the primary vote in a crowded 25th District race.
She hopes her performance will improve in a head-to-head matchup against political newcomer Hans Zeiger.
Columns the 25-year-old Zeiger wrote in his college years have made easy targets for Democrats. He described Islam as a cult, the Girl Scouts as a “pro-abortion, feminist training corps” and public school graduates as by and large “devoid of character, conscience or courage.”
The Edgewood resident, who works part-time for a conservative think tank, pulled many of the writings off the Internet. He says they no longer represent his views.
Focusing on taxes and spending now, Zeiger favors privatization of many government services, such as liquor sales and the state printer, and says Morrell and Democrats were wrong to raise taxes.
“I don’t buy the argument that everything has been cut that can be cut in state government,” he said.
Morrell, who in past years has pushed to expand state property tax relief for seniors, started this year opposing tax increases. She voted against suspending I-960 and early versions of the major tax package.
But when it came to a final vote, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, switched her vote to oppose the bill. Democrats needed an extra vote. Morrell voted “yes.”
“Dawn swallowed hard and gave it the vote,” said Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia, who is leading the campaign to keep the Democrats’ House majority.
It was a relief, Morrell said. She didn’t want to go home and campaign against her party’s budget. She thinks they did the best they could – and besides, Morrell said, she’s a bad liar.
Another Democrat who supported raising taxes and now faces a tough re-election fight is Rep. Tami Green, a nurse from Lake-wood who has been a champion of unions and progressive groups. Green, who also backed suspension of I-960, said the taxes were necessary to avoid deeper cuts.
She received just less than 48 percent of the vote in the three-person 28th District primary. Her Republican opponent, developer, former Marine and Clover Park School Board member Paul Wagemann of Lakewood, criticizes the tax increases. Applying sales tax to bottled water and candy is particularly frustrating, says the former grocery store manager.
Like other GOP candidates, including Doug Richards of Port Orchard, when Wagemann is asked what programs should be cut to avoid tax increases, he points to the government-reform options laid out by Democratic State Auditor Brian Sonntag, which included liquor privatization.
Many other South Sound Democrats don’t have the same liability as Eide, Green and Morrell; they voted against the most controversial bills, either on principle or with the blessing of caucus leaders who could spare a few votes to help swing-district lawmakers.
Among the South Sound Democrats from swing districts who voted no on I-960 suspension and the main tax package: Kilmer, Rep. Larry Seaquist of Gig Harbor and Sen. Claudia Kauffman of Kent – all of whom did support a $1 increase in the cigarette tax – Rep. Mark Miloscia of Federal Way, Rep. Christopher Hurst of Enumclaw and Kelley of Tacoma.
Up against their main GOP challengers in the primary, Miloscia outpolled Shawn Sullivan, Hurst led Patrick Reed, and Kilmer was ahead of Marty McClendon. But Kauffman trailed far behind GOP challenger Joe Fain.
Races were tighter for retired Navy Capt. Seaquist, who led firefighter Richards in the 26th District, and Kelley, who edged out Tacoma Republican and attorney Steve O’Ban in the 28th District by just 124 votes out of nearly 24,000 cast.
Their votes give them some cover, but Republicans still have plenty of ammunition.
In a television commercial in the primary campaign, O’Ban ties Kelley to debt, spending and “job-killing taxes,” saying the Legislature enacted such policies while Kelley “stands on the sidelines.”
But Kelley voted against every major tax and spending bill this year. “I’m standing up to my caucus, seems like all the time,” he said.
Kelley said that next year Olympia will need lawmakers like him who can work across the aisle, since Democrats’ majorities could erode and voters could approve Initiative 1053 to reinstate the requirement for two-thirds majorities on tax votes. Given the need to compromise, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if Democrats lose a few seats this year, said Kelley, an Army reservist and owner of a document tracking company.
O’Ban is a lawyer and activist for socially conservative causes such as the effort to defeat the law strengthening same-sex domestic partnerships, which Kelley supported and voters upheld in 2009. But he’s attacking Kelley on fiscal issues, in keeping with Republicans’ focus and voters’ priorities.
Kelley backed the pre-recession 2007 budget that increased spending, part of what Republicans say was a long spending binge by Olympia Democrats.
The two-year budget written in 2007 was more than 30 percent larger than the one written in 2003. Spending increases required tougher choices once the downturn hit.
“It was smart politics to vote with the Republicans in 2010, but you can’t get away from helping to create the problem in the first place,” O’Ban said.
Kelley, who chairs the Legislature’s performance auditing committee, is one of several committee chairmen whose jobs are in jeopardy. Haigh, who leads the House budget subcommittee on education, is in a tight race with Republican Dan Griffey.
Simpson, a firefighter and fiery liberal who’s in charge of the House’s local government committee, was doused by a primary in which he trailed Republican instructor pilot Mark Hargrove of Coving-ton with just 39 percent of the vote. The poor showing came after Simpson was charged with assault; he maintains the accusations by his ex-wife are politically motivated.
Add those to the voluntary retirements of top Democrats – House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler of Hoquiam, Sen. Rosa Franklin of Tacoma and House Education Committee Chairman Dave Quall of Mount Vernon – and there’s the makings of an injection of new blood into the Legislature.