Tacoma News TribuneApril 18, 2010 JORDAN SCHRADER
Legislative heavies hogged the spotlight during three months of budget wrangling in Olympia. As the session gives way to campaign season, all eyes will be on a different group of Democrats: those from swing districts.
Some helped their majority party raise taxes and cut programs to deal with a $2.8 billion budget shortfall. Others balked, or were protected by their party caucuses from taking tough votes.
They’ll find out Nov. 2 how well it played back home in their districts.
“Some of those guys took some pretty bad votes as far as what we think the district makeup is like,” said Kevin Carns, director of the House Republican Organizational Committee.
Throughout the session, Republicans have been recruiting candidates to take on potentially vulnerable incumbents.
Carns said the committee is targeting 10 districts as competitive, with a couple more possible. The Senate Republican Campaign Committee has eight targeted districts with strong challengers, director Brent Ludeman said.
Taking over both legislative majorities would require nearly perfect results in those districts and some help elsewhere. Republicans need to pick up seven seats to take over the Senate, where 25 votes command a majority, and 13 seats to reach a 50-vote majority in the House.
Democrats used their majorities this year to suspend tax barriers in voter-approved Initiative 960 and then muscle through $800 million in new taxes on service businesses such as lawyers and hairdressers, out-of-state firms such as banks and wholesalers, major-label beer, soda pop, candy, gum and bottled water.
Their large numbers allowed them to approve the tax measures without help from some of their more vulnerable members – not to mention over the opposition of every Republican.
Democrats from swing districts, especially first-term legislators, were more likely to vote no.
“It was difficult,” freshman Sen. Claudia Kauffman of Kent said shortly after voting against the Democrats’ final tax deal, “but everyone understands that we all have difficult districts.”
“I think I did what I believe my district wanted me to do.”
High-ranking legislators such as Senate Majority Floor Leader Tracey Eide of Federal Way and House Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Dawn Morrell of Puyallup took the risk of casting yes votes on taxes and the budget, despite their competitive districts.
Morrell twice voted against her caucus’s tax package before voting for the final deal. In the end, she said, it seemed unfair to ask for money in the budget to help seniors and people with disabilities and then oppose the money used to pay for it.
It was a tough decision, but not as tough as trying to distance herself at home from the Legislature’s work.
“It’s just not true to my character,” she said. “It’s really hard for me to go home and say ‘Oh, we did a terrible job,’ because I think we did a pretty good job.”
Even Democrats who voted against that final revenue package are not immune to ads accusing them of raising taxes. Some voted for a $1-per-pack cigarette tax increase, seen as more popular with voters. Others helped pass an operating budget that pays for programs with the money raised by the new taxes.
Just four Democrats voted against both tax measures and the budget measures, including Rep. Troy Kelley of Tacoma.
Of course, Democrats won’t be playing only defense. The House seat held by Rep. Dan Roach of Bonney Lake is up for grabs now that Roach is running for King County Council. And Democrats will be gunning for the Senate seat long held by Roach’s mother, Pam Roach, seeing her as vulnerable after well-publicized run-ins with staff that led Republicans to eject her from their caucus room this year.
But Democratic seats will be the ones in play in most Pierce and south King county districts, which are traditionally some of the more competitive in the state.
As many as 11 of the area’s Democratic lawmakers up for re-election this year could face a tough fight.
SEN. CLAUDIA KAUFFMAN REPS. GEOFF SIMPSON AND PAT SULLIVAN
Kauffman is a freshman. Sullivan, a former Covington mayor, is in his third term, and Simpson, a firefighter, has served in the House since 2000.
Roll Call: Kauffman voted for the cigarette tax and the budget but not the main tax package. Sullivan, who helped negotiate the budget deal, voted for all three, though he ended up voting against the final version of the cigarette tax. Simpson opposed the budget and the final tax deal after voting for the tobacco taxes and earlier versions of the tax package.
Potential opponents: Republicans Nancy Wyatt, Auburn Area Chamber of Commerce president, and Mark Hargrove, a Boeing instructor pilot, are vying for the right to take on Simpson. Rodrigo Yanez is running for Sullivan’s seat.
Joe Fain, who is running for Kauffman’s seat, has served as chief of staff for King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer. Fain said Democrats like Kauffman would be held accountable for their budget votes. “If you’re voting yes on spending that requires new taxes, and then say, ‘But I voted no on taxes,’ that doesn’t pass the sniff test,” he said.
Swing voters: The district in south King County is represented by all Democrats, but Republican Dino Rossi narrowly edged out Gov. Chris Gregoire there in 2008.
Includes: Parts of Kent, Auburn, Covington and Black Diamond
Sen. Claudia Kauffman, D
Rep. Geoff Simpson, D
Rep. Pat Sullivan, D
Lay of the land: Incumbents rarely hang on to their seats without a fight in this district. Republicans think Kauffman, a freshman senator, is vulnerable, despite her vote against key tax measures.