Predictions of a possible “Blue Wave” in Washington state did not materialize last week, despite President Trump’s unpopularity among the electorate. As of Monday, he had received just under 39 percent of the vote to President-elect Joe Biden’s 58 percent.
Initially, it looked like Democrats might be poised to pick up several legislative seats and further pad their healthy majorities in both the Washington House and Senate. But as later-arriving ballots have been counted, the advantage has swung the other way giving Republicans the edge in several tight races.
“I’ve never seen such a strong, late trend,” said House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox.
The GOP-friendly trend as ballots continue to be counted is likely attributable to Democrats rushing to get their ballots in early this year.
The shift in favor of Republicans has been most striking in Clark County’s 17th Legislative District and the 10th District, which includes Island County and portions of Skagit and Snohomish Counties, where Democrats, who led in key races on election night, now trail their Republican challengers.
In the 17th District, incumbent Republican state Rep. Vicki Kraft has pulled ahead of Democrat Tanisha Harris. In the 10th District, incumbent Republican state Senator Ron Muzzall, who was previously appointed to the seat, now leads Democrat Helen Price Johnson. Two House races in that same district remain too close to call.
Meanwhile, Democrats have lost a pair of long-held seats in the 19th District, which encompasses southwest coastal Washington, cementing a Republican takeover of that once reliably blue, rural corner of the state.
“That’s the hardest loss for us,” said state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon who leads the House Democrats’ reelection efforts.
With the vast majority of Washington’s 49 legislative districts considered safe, the competitive contests have played out in just a dozen or so districts.
Going into the election, Democrats were trying to protect some seats while also eyeing a number of potential pickup opportunities, including in the 10th and 17th districts, as well as in Puyallup’s 25th District.
Democrats were even bullish enough to think they might have a shot at an open state Senate seat in the solidly Republican 16th Legislative District, which includes Walla Walla. They also had an eye on a House seat currently held by Republican Jenny Graham in the 6th Legislative District west of Spokane.
But in the end, it doesn’t appear 2020 will deliver net gains for legislative Democrats.
"While we hoped to further increase our historic majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, we always knew these pick-up opportunities would be tough,” said Tina Podlodowski, chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, in a statement.
Nonetheless, Democrats do have their bright spots.
In Pierce County’s hard-fought 28th District, incumbent Republican state Sen. Steve O'Ban has conceded to Democrat T’wina Nobles who heads the Urban League of Tacoma. Nobles is poised to become the first Black state senator in a decade and only the second Black woman to serve in the Washington state Senate. Democrats will now hold all three legislative seats in that traditionally swing district which has trended blue in recent years.
Republicans have also conceded a pair of hotly contested House races in Whatcom County’s 42nd District. Democrats will hang onto one seat they already control and pick up a second seat currently held by a Republican.
Generally, legislative incumbents fared well this year, but not in every case.
For instance, in King County’s diverse 11th Legislative District, which includes Tukwila and Renton, longtime Democratic state Rep. Zack Hudgins lost his seat to fellow Democrat David Hackney, an African American attorney and activist.
Ironically, the trend that’s helping Republicans in some districts may also save an incumbent Democrat in Issaquah’s 5th District. There, state Sen. Mark Mullet faced an intra-party challenge from Ingrid Anderson, a nurse who ran to his left. Anderson was ahead on election night, but since then Mullet has pulled ever so slightly ahead (78 votes at the time of this writing). A recount is possible in this race.
Before the election, Democrats held a 57 to 41 majority in the Washington House and had a 28 to 21 advantage in the state Senate (the 21st Democratic senator votes with Republicans). After the election is certified, the numbers for 2021 may not look much different, if at all.
“I never expected that we were going to have some sort of wave election in Washington, but what we do have is a pretty unambiguous endorsement of a solid Democratic majority in each chamber,” Fitzgibbon said.
Nationally, Democrats had hoped to win control of several state legislative chambers this year. But in the end very little appears to have changed in terms of legislative control across the U.S. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, so far only the New Hampshire House and Senate have switched, with Republicans picking up the majorities in each chamber.
While legislative Republicans in Washington may have held Democrats to a relative draw this year, the GOP faces a tough road ahead if it hopes to re-take control of either the House or Senate.
In recent years, Democrats have solidified their lock on several King County suburban districts that were once considered competitive, including the 30th District in Federal Way and the 47th District southeast of Kent, as well as Issaquah’s 5th District.
“You can’t get majorities in either [chamber] unless you have at least a few seats from King County, the math doesn’t work,” said Chris Vance, a former state Republican Party chair who now identifies as an independent.
Wilcox, the House Republican leader, said the best opportunity for GOP pickups will likely come during midterm elections when Democrats have the presidency.
“The off-year election is going to be determined by who’s in the White House,” Wilcox said.
This story has been updated to reflect Republican concessions in the 28th and 42nd Legislative Districts.