OLYMPIA — One more wave election and Democrats could see some of their biggest Washington House and Senate majorities of the 21st century.
In 2018, Democrats picked up seven House seats and three Senate seats, riding a wave against Republicans in a state where President Donald Trump has been deeply unpopular.
Those wins — giving Democrats a 57-to-41 majority in the House and a 28-to-21 majority in the Senate — gave the party dominance in Olympia for the first time in years. The big Democratic majorities have since passed a slew of progressive legislation on climate change, health care, firearms regulations and other issues.
Now, the parties are fighting again for the votes to set and push through an agenda in Olympia on everything from taxes and spending, to health care, housing and jobs.
This year, the global coronavirus pandemic has magnified the stakes.
When they return as scheduled in January, lawmakers will likely face excruciating decisions on taxes and spending to balance an $8.8 billion projected state budget shortfall through 2023. The new class of legislators will also consider policing reforms in light of the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd.
They must also grapple with Washington’s persistent preexisting problems, such as homelessness and housing affordability, and continuing to rebuild the state’s struggling mental-health care system.
All 98 House seats are up for election, along with 26 Senate seats. Ballots started going out two weeks ago.
The Aug. 4 top two primary results will give a snapshot of which races could be truly competitive in the Nov. 3 general election.
Democrats are betting on picking up more seats as Trump tops the GOP ticket. And they believe that the state’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic — driven primarily by Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat — will win support from voters.
“People are looking for responsible leadership who are going to look to public health guidance,” said Adam Bartz, executive director of the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.
Democrats have room to grow. In 2018, at least five House Republicans fended off Democratic candidates by less than 2.5%; at least one other prevailed by less than 5%. This year, Democrats are eyeing as many as five GOP-held Senate seats.
Republicans this year are looking to recapture some of the seats they lost in 2018, hold on to what they have, and maintain some kind of sway amid national headwinds.
Those in the GOP believe their legislative candidates can win by highlighting tax hikes passed by Democratic majorities and signed by Inslee in recent years— and pointing to the new taxes some Democrats want to approve.
Washington State Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich cited a recent proposal by Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, to enact new taxes — including on capital gains — to fund public health, child care, affordable housing, early learning, workforce education and other programs.
He says Democrats are “taking Seattle policies and pushing them statewide.”
And while Seattle’s liberal politics have been a routine feature of Republican campaign ads in recent years, the GOP has focused on the recent protests in Seattle and the brief life of the controversial autonomous zone known as Capitol Hill Occupied Protest.
Heimlich described that dynamic as “lawlessness, anarchy, chaos” that Republicans hope will pull suburban voters in their direction.
Like U.S. congressional races, most of Washington’s 49 state legislative districts are generally considered safe for one party or the other. In most elections, only a handful of districts across Western Washington are fiercely contested and considered competitive.