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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."

PAC Spending Didn't Always Win The Race In Washington

Washington State House Republicans
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Negative political ads often work. But not always.

In Washington state, some winners on election night withstood hundreds of thousands of dollars in political action committee spending against them.

Take Washington Supreme Court Justice Charlie Wiggins. Two PACs funded by wealthy Washingtonians spent a combined $412,500 to defeat him. But in the end, Wiggins still got nearly 58 percent of the vote.

Former Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom led a PAC that ran soft-on-crime ads against Wiggins.

“I was a little surprised it didn’t move the needle more than it did,” he said.

But Tom said he thinks the ads could have a lasting effect.

“I think it’s put the court on notice that you’ll probably have a contested election so don’t necessarily change your vote, but know that if you’re doing something stupid you’re going to be held accountable to it,” he said.

On the legislative front, the candidate who faced the most PAC spending against him did lose.

Republican PACs spent nearly $800,000 to defeat Democrat Tim Probst in his race for an open state Senate seat in southwest Washington. Republican Lynda Wilson, who was also heavily spent against, won that race. That seat is currently held by Republican Don Benton who is retiring from the Washington Senate.

But five of the top 10 most targeted candidates for the Washington legislature are winning their races. Besides Wilson they are:

  • Democrat Lisa Wellman who defeated incumbent Republican Steve Litzow for a state Senate seat in the 41st Legislative District, which includes Mercer Island.
  • Democratic state Sen. Mark Mullet is clinging to a narrow lead over his Republican challenger, state Rep. Chad Magendanz, in Issaquah’s 5th Legislative District.
  • Republican state Sen. Steve O’Ban from Pierce County’s 28th Legislative District held on in the face of a challenge from Democrat Marisa Peloquin.
  • Democratic challenger Kristine Reeves is maintaining her narrow lead over Republican state Representative Teri Hickel in south King County’s 30th Legislative District.

One of the big players in the independent expenditure realm this year was Enterprise Washington, a business-backed association with several PACs. It spent more than $1.7 million on four state legislative races and one Supreme Court race. But in the end, only two of the five Enterprise Washington-backed candidates won: O’Ban and Lynda Wilson, who won in the 17th District.

Still Enterprise Washington president Michael Davis considers this campaign cycle a success for his organization.

“Our top goal this year was to preserve a pro-business coalition in the Senate and we did that,” Davis said in a telephone interview from his office in Bellevue. “For the business community that is an incredibly significant victory.”

By coalition, Davis is referring to the Majority Coalition Caucus in the state Senate, a group of Republican senators plus Democrat Tim Sheldon who caucuses with them. They did retain their majority, but just barely. In fact, they lost a seat with the defeat of Litzow in the 41st District leaving them with just a one seat advantage over Democrats.

But it’s the Republican victory in the 17th District that Davis is focused on.

“That was our absolutely must have, must win race and we played very significantly in it and [Wilson] won,” Davis said.

Big picture, Davis said Enterprise Washington -- whose top donors this year included Chevron, the Building Industry Association of Washington and The Boeing Company -- has an 8-2 record since it became an active player in state legislative races in 2013.

In statewide races, allies of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee spent $726,806 in opposition to Republican challenger Bill Bryant. But even without that spending, Bryant likely would have been defeated. Washington Conservation Voters spent $115,523 against Republican lands commissioner candidate Steve McLaughlin who lost to Democrat Hilary Franz.

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."