The full importance of the Don Benton vs. Tim Probst race for state senator is starting to emerge. The picture will become more clear in the next week or so as a recount of ballots unfolds. Benton, the Republican incumbent, is expected to hold his narrow lead.
But the greater drama in which Benton is a key player is up in Olympia. Democrats hold a 26-23 control of the Senate (assuming Benton keeps his lead), but two Democrats have said they are interested in working with Republicans. If Probst wins (unlikely, though possible), the Democrats’ majority control would be 27-22 and thus immune to the philosophically wavering “roadkill” moderates, Rodney Tom of Bellevue and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch.
In Olympia, both parties’ power brokers already are counting on a Benton triumph. Democrats are considering various hybrids of power-sharing, ostensibly to keep Tom and Sheldon in the donkey’s corral and stave off any elephant stampede toward control. Caucus discussions will continue this week. Uncertainties persist about committee chairmanships and other aspects of majority control.
In the meantime, it is rather refreshing to see the state Senate apparently drifting toward some kind of bipartisan power-sharing. Democrats, of course, are terrified. Their caucus leader, Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle, made this not-so-oblique statement about power-sharing: “At what point do you become ineffective because you’ve entered into some sort of convoluted governing arrangement that doesn’t allow you to accomplish what you came down here for? I’m more concerned about the Senate functioning than with being majority leader.”
We’re not so afraid. If Democrats fear losing their long-standing grip on the state Senate, well, that already happened this year during budget talks. As Benton noted in a recent statement, some kind of “coalition seeking a philosophical majority for smaller government has a real chance of now forming in the Senate. It can act as a counterweight to the House.” That’s true, and such high drama should have this year’s nonvoters in the 17th Legislative District feeling even more regretful that they did not participate.
Here’s one delicious irony that this drama provides: If, indeed, there is some sort of moderation of the state Senate toward a more centrist control, it will have been triggered by one of the most stridently partisan members of that chamber, Benton.
Last Wednesday, Republicans elected Mark Schoesler of Ritzville as leader of the minority caucus in the Senate. And the Washington State Wire quoted Republican state Sen. Ann Rivers of La Center: “We’ll be sitting down very soon to map things out for the upcoming session; considering how our caucus clearly is leading the way in terms of pursuing smarter budgeting and government reform, I expect that emphasis will continue.” Rivers last week was elected Republican whip in the Senate.
How independent might Tom and Sheldon become in coming weeks? No one knows for sure. But it’s already clear in Olympia that the donkeys are distressed, the elephants are eager and the Senate no longer is the guaranteed province of the Democrats.