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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

18 Years Out Of Power, Washington GOP Hopes To Win Control Of Legislature

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Republican Lynda Wilson of Vancouver pounds a campaign sign into the yard of a supporter. She's a current state representative running for the state Senate against Democrat Tim Probst in one of the most competitive legislative races this year.

It’s been 18 years since Republicans last controlled both chambers of the Washington legislature. They’re hoping 2016 is the year they can reclaim the majority. But that will require holding on to their narrow grip on the state Senate and flipping the Washington House -- something Democrats are determined not to let happen.

In northeast Vancouver, Washington. Republican state Rep. Lynda Wilson is looking to move up to the Washington Senate. She’ s hoping to replace longtime Republican state Sen. Don Benton who isn’t running for re-election in this swing district. Benton is retiring after eking out a narrow victory four years ago against Democrat Tim Probst.

Now Probst is running again. This is one of the most competitive races of the year and could determine which party controls the Washington Senate come January.

Wilson is bracing for what’s to come.

“You know, it’s gonna get ugly,” she said with a laugh.

A marathon, not a sprint

Probst would argue the race has already gotten ugly. Leading up to the primary, Senate Republicans spent nearly $200,000 clobbering him in ads and mailers. Even so, he essentially tied Lynda Wilson in the August primary.

In a primary night campaign video posted to Facebook Probst said, “It’s wonderful that, outspent nearly two to one, I’ve got this result. It’s my highest primary result ever.”

It’s just one of a handful of state Senate seats Washington Democrats are targeting for pick up. They need just two to retake control. But they also need to protect vulnerable incumbents.

Adam Bartz runs the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign committee. He offered an Olympics analogy to describe the race for control of the state Senate.

“It’s super cliché, but this is definitely the marathon, not a sprint,” Bartz said.

Bartz said they’ve just passed the halfway point, the primary, neck and neck. And it’s likely to still be close at the November finish line.

“It might just be a couple of steps ahead of the Senate Republicans,” Bartz said, “but that’s our goal is to beat them in this marathon.”

‘The House is effectively tied’

Bartz isn’t the only political strategist in Washington looking to pick up two seats in November.

The Reagan Fund is the House Republican’s political action committee. PAC Director Kevin Carns has spent the last seven years chipping away at the Democrats’ lock on the Washington House. Now, he’s two seats away from the majority -- one if you assume a pick up in Republican red east Pierce County based on primary results.

“The Washington House is effectively tied right now,” Carns said.

Carns sees opportunities to win additional seats from Democrats elsewhere in suburban Puget Sound. But he also has to protect a pair of incumbent Republicans in blue-leaning south King County. Those races could be among the most expensive campaigns in the fight for control of the Washington House.

“You’re going to see a lot of money spent by both sides, you’re going to see kids in about 42 different colors of t-shirts, knocking doors and dropping off literatures,” Carns said. “At a certain point by the general election it will be difficult to tell who’s who. It will be a little like Syria.”

Not too many years ago Democrats held a near supermajority in the Washington House. Now they’re fighting just to hold onto a slim majority. It’s a political sea change.

“It’s definitely different this time around,” House Democratic Campaign Committee Executive Director Tony Yuchasz said.

Even though he’s got Republicans breathing down his neck, Yuchasz thinks the wind is shifting in favor of Democrats.

“It feels pretty good and I think the results from the primary basically back that up,” he said.

Already, more than $16 million has been raised for Washington state legislative campaigns this year. Most of which will be spent in just a handful races.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."