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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."

Guns a blazin' spending highlights six must-watch WA legislative races

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Heated battles are playing out across Washington as candidates vie to serve in the state Legislature come January.

In a year that seems all about the presidential election, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening down the ballot. In Washington, all nine statewide elected positions are up this year. But some of the fiercest action, and biggest spending, is happening in state legislative races.

For context, Democrats currently hold strong majorities in both the Washington House (57 to 41) and Senate (28 to 21 -- the 21st is a Democrat who votes with Republicans).

From Clark County to Whatcom County, from Puyallup to the heart of Seattle, only a handful of the 124 legislative contests are fiercely competitive. Some feature one Republican and one Democrat. Others are intra-party contests.

We aren’t going to get to them all. Instead, here’s a quick guide to six of the hottest statehouse contests across the state.

Note: the campaign finance numbers below were current as of October 22. For the latest numbers click here and sort by money raised or spent. 

28th District (Senate)

We begin in Pierce County where veteran Republican lawmaker Steve O’Ban is fighting to hang onto his seat in the face of a formidable challenge from Democrat T’wina Nobles. The 28th District, which includes Lakewood and University Place, has been trending blue in recent years. The two House seats in the district are currently held by Democrats, leaving O’Ban the sole Republican in the 28th district legislative delegation. Nobles outpolled O’Ban in the August primary revealing his vulnerability this year. 

In a sign of how heated this race has become, it’s drawn the most campaign cash and spending of any state legislative contest this year. Nobles currently leads with $798,265 raised to O’Ban’s $786,630.

In addition, outside groups have poured $1.8 million into the race – mostly in opposition to one candidate or the other.

Generally, business groups are backing O’Ban’s re-election while organized labor is supporting Nobles.

O’Ban is a conservative attorney who has long been identified with his opposition to abortion rights. But this year it’s clear he’s trying to appeal to more liberal voters in his fast-changing district. A scan of O’Ban’s TV ads reveals a focus on his efforts to help the mentally ill and at-risk youth, and his willingness to “work across party lines.” However, O’Ban’s more conservative side comes out on other issues like his sponsorship of legislation in response to the Seattle protest zone known as the CHOP. His bill would prohibit cities from withholding police and other essential services from a neighborhood or community within its jurisdiction with the goal, he says, of preventing CHOP “from ever happening again.” 

Nobles is a University Place School Board member and the President and CEO of the Tacoma Urban League. If elected, she would be the first Black state Senator in Washington since Sen. Rosa Franklin retired in 2010. Nobles’ top issues include boosting teacher pay and reducing class size, increasing mental health funding and expanding affordable housing. She also says Washington’s current tax system “isn’t fair.” 

Both candidates signaled support for car tab relief following a recent Supreme Court decision that overturned I-976, a voter-approved measure designed to reduce car registration fees.

10th District (Senate)

Another barn burner state Senate race is in the 10th legislative district, which includes Whidbey Island and parts of Snohomish and Skagit Counties. It’s a district that currently has two Republicans and one Democrat. One of those Republicans is Ron Muzzall, a farmer who was appointed to the position in 2019. He’s facing off against Democrat Helen Price Johnson, a business owner, who currently serves on the Island County Board of Commissioners.

As in the 28th, Democrats see an opportunity here to pick up a seat. As such, this race is also drawing boatloads of cash. Price Johnson has raised $577,573 to Muzzall’s $457,647. And, once again, outside money is flooding into the district. In fact, independent groups are on track to spend more in this race than the candidates themselves are spending. 

Muzzall emphasizes his vote in the Legislature in March to appropriate $200 million in emergency funds to respond to the pandemic, as well as his efforts to improve nursing home safety and his opposition to new or higher taxes.

Price Johnson highlights her work on a regional economic recovery task force and her support of expanded apprenticeships and skills training. She’s called Washington’s tax system “regressive,” but also says she “held the line on taxes” as a County Commissioner during the Great Recession. 

Note: The 10th also features a pair of well-funded House races. One is an open seat. In the other, a first-term Democrat is seeking re-election.

16th District (Senate)

In a sign of just how bullish (or perhaps flush with cash) Democrats are this year, they’re making a hard play to pick up a seat in the heart of Republican eastern Washington. Back in the day, the 16th District, which includes Walla Walla, sent Democrats to Olympia. But not lately. This year, the Senate position in that district is an open seat due to the retirementof longtime Republican lawmaker Maureen Walsh. 

What’s striking is Democrat Danielle Garbe Reser is lapping her Republican opponent, Perry Dozier, in fundraising. Reser reports having raised $438,537 to Dozier’s $137,350.

Garbe Reser, who grew up in Moses Lake, is a retired State Department diplomat who is now CEO of a private foundation. Dozier is a farmer and former county commissioner. Garbe Reser bills herself as an independent voice who would “make Olympia listen to us.” Dozier cites his experience in public office and his opposition to new taxes.

Despite Garbe Reser’s cash advantage, the local newspaper recently pointed out that she’s still the underdog in this race. In the August primary, Dozier and another Republican candidate split 65 percent of the vote to Garbe Reser’s 35 percent. In other words, what Dozier lacks in dollars he likely has in electoral capital. 

5th District (Senate)

If you like political cannibalism, this race is for you. It features two Democrats, incumbent Mark Mullet and left-flanking challenger Ingrid Anderson, who both emerged from the top two primary in August. They are competing in a suburban Seattle district that includes Issaquah and North Bend. Four years ago, Democrats poured money into Mullet’s campaign to help him stave off a challenge from Republican Chad Magendanz. At the time, the 5th was viewed as a swing district and the seat was key to which party controlled the state Senate.

What a difference four years can make. Now voters in the 5th are being asked what brand of Democrat they favor. Mullet has become something of a pariah in Democratic circles. Progressive groups, and even Gov. Jay Inslee, have abandoned him in favor of Anderson, a nurse. It appears Mullet, who operates a Zeeks Pizza restaurant and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream shops, is paying the price for his refusal to embrace a capital gains tax and the governor’s clean-fuels standard. In addition to Inslee’s high profile endorsement, Anderson has earned the support of labor unions and environmental groups. 

Despite being a target of progressives, Mullet is far ahead in the fundraising race. He’s reported $428,860 in contributions to Anderson’s $197,049. But as with other hot races, much of the action is playing out on the independent expenditure side of the ledger.

So far unions, including SEIU and the Washington Education Association, have spent $1.2 million supporting Anderson. Another $425,116 has been expended opposing Mullet.

Meanwhile, the business community has rallied to Mullet’s side. His candidacy has received $1 million in outside support, with most of that backing coming from a business-funded political action committee.

Anderson won the primary with a 491 vote advantage over Mullet. But the general election could favor Mullet if Republican leaning voters flock to him.

42nd District (House)

A pair of hot House races in this sprawling Whatcom County district are putting two incumbents – one Democrat and one Republican -- through their paces and drawing lots of money. Stretching from Bellingham to the Okanogan County border, the 42nd in many ways mirrors the urban-rural divide of state.

The hottest of the two races involves first-term incumbent Democrat Sharon Shewmake, a professor at Western Washington University, who trailed her Republican challenger, Jennifer Sefzik, a former speech and debate coach, after the August primary.

The second race features three-term incumbent Republican Luanne Van Werven and Democratic challenger Alicia Rule who serves on the Blaine City Council. Van Werven emerged from the August primary with a nearly four point lead over Rule.

The 42nd, anchored by liberal Bellingham, is a tough district to pigeonhole. In 2018, voters there elected Shewmake over a Republican incumbent. But they also re-elected (albeit narrowly) conservative state Sen. Doug Ericksen who was a vice-chair of Donald Trump’s 2016 Washington campaign. Maybe the story of the 42nd is that voters there are loyal to incumbents, until they’re not. Take Democrat Kelli Linville. For 17 years, she served the district -- rising to the role of House budget chair -- until her defeat in 2010.

This year, big money from both sides is flowing north to Whatcom County.

Shewmake has raised $395,375 to Sefzik’s $333,822 while Van Werven has raised $300,432 to Rule’s $286,646. In addition, $827,000 has been spent by political action committees supporting or opposing the various candidates.

Among the issues in these races is Gov. Jay Inslee’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Legislature’s passage of a mandatory sex ed bill, taxes and even vaccine policy.

19th District (House and Senate)

In the 1990s, coastal Washington was a battleground over efforts to save the northern spotted owl from extinction. Today, it’s Democrats who face potential erasure in this part of the state. Four years ago, Republican Jim Walsh broke the Democrats’ decades-long lock on the 19th District, which stretches from Aberdeen to Longview. This year, two more incumbent Democrats are holding on for dear life and may soon be swept away.

State Sen. Dean Takko, who was first elected to the House in 2005, and state Rep. Brian Blake, who is seeking his 10th term, are two of the most conservative Democrats in the Legislature. But they may not be conservative enough for their district anymore -- or perhaps it's just the "D" next to their name that's become an insurmountable liability. The August primary revealed their vulnerability. Takko faced two Republican challengers who together got nearly 56 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Blake trailed his Republican challenger 47 percent to 53 percent. For longtime, well-known incumbents this doesn’t augur well.

But this pair is not going down without a fight and both still have a significant financial advantage over their opponents. Blake has raised $363,302 while his Republican challenger Joel McEntire has raised $189,203. Takko has pulled in $361,530 while Republican Jeff Wilson has brought in just $65,313.

But, once again, there’s outside money playing in these races. A political action committee (PAC) backed by the Washington State Republican Party is spending to defeat Blake. Another PAC funded by Senate Republicans and the Republican State Leadership Committee in Washington, DC is working to knock out Takko.

Meanwhile, labor-backed PACs are working to protect these two rural Democrats from extinction. You can find more on the outside money playing these races here

As in the 42nd District, the electoral battles in the 19th highlight the urban-rural divide in Washington. On their campaign websites, Republicans McEntire and Wilson frame their races, at least in part, as a fight against Seattle “style” policies and politics. On the flip side, Democrats Blake and Takko take pains in their campaign materials to burnish their bonafides as rural independents.

One last data point. So far, legislative candidates in Washington have spent more than $22 million this year compared to $18 million spent by statewide candidates. That doesn't include all that outside, or independent, spending that's also going on. 

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."