Senate control may rest on Vancouver

Five races are closely watched; Benton-Probst is among them

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photoDemocratic Representative Tim Probst speaks to supporters after winning the 17th Legislative district 1 race Tuesday November 2, 2010 in Vancouver, Washington. (The Columbian/Troy Wayrynen)

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Five hotly contested state Senate seats this year, including one in Vancouver, could determine whether Washington Republicans gain control of the state Senate for the first time since 2004.

Dave Ammons, communications director for the Office of Secretary of State and former state government reporter for the Associated Press, said political observers feel that Republicans have a good shot at capturing the Senate. Even if Republicans are unable to outnumber Democrats, they could still work with "business Democrats," as they did in the latest session, to achieve a working majority, he said.

In recent years, Democrats have enjoyed a healthy majority in the state Senate, the longest-running of either party in the last 30 years.

Secretary of the Senate Tom Hoemann, former Senate Democratic Caucus chief of staff, said it is unusual for a party to have control of the Senate for so long.

"This stretch is kind of an anomaly," he said.

However, the Democratic majority has been steadily declining since 2008, and Ammons said the momentum seems to have shifted back to the Republicans.

Democrats hold 27 seats in the Senate, leaving Republicans with 22. This means Republicans would need to win at least three seats now held by Democrats to take outright control of the Senate. They also need to hold on to the seats they have.

This is what Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, aims to do as he runs for re-election to the 17th District seat against Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver.

The outlook

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said things are looking up for his party in Washington.

"I'm very optimistic that there will be a Republican majority in the state Senate this January," he said. He said it is reasonable to expect a majority for his party this year because, since 2006, which was a bad year for Republicans nationwide, the party has steadily gained seats.

Schoesler said the five key seats represent a fairly sizable turnover, especially across the aisle.

Michael King, executive director of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, agreed this election year is significant, though he's predicting Democratic wins as voters react to this spring's Republican-proposed budget cuts.

"This year, voters got a sneak preview of what a Republican majority would look like," he said.

King said the proposed cuts, which were not approved, made the GOP's priorities clear. The budget proposals likely turned voters against the right, he said.

King said he is confident that the Democrats could not only protect their current majority, but pick up a seat or two as well.

The Senate seats at stake include the 1st, 5th, 10th, 17th and 41st districts, he said.

The incumbents in the 1st and 10th districts are Democrats, while the incumbents in the 17th and 41st are Republicans. Cheryl Pflug (R-Maple Valley) currently holds the 5th District Senate seat, but will resign July 1 to accept a position on a state growth board.

A local battle

In the 17th, Benton has served in the Senate for nearly 16 years. Benton said he decided to run for re-election because he is disgusted by the direction in which the Democratic majority in the Senate has led the state.

"The Democratic control has destroyed the state's economy," he said. "I don't think my constituents can survive another four years of Democratic majority in the Senate."

Benton said he is confident he can defeat Probst. Along with the Republican vote, he said, he feels he can secure independent votes. Benton said he views himself as an independent.

Probst, who describes himself as a moderate, said he is confident as well, but he does not think the race will come easily.

"I think it will be a close race, but I've been in a lot of close races -- and they often end up not-so-close," he said.

The representative also believes he can capture independent votes. He said both parties are becoming too extreme, which alienates moderate voters. This polarization is a nationwide trend, Probst said.

"For the thinking people in the middle, it begins to turn them off," he said. "They don't just want someone to follow party lines and be an ideologue," he said. "And I've proven myself to be that."

Probst said the Republicans' chances don't look as good statewide as they did a few months ago, but that the outlook could change between now and Election Day.

However, he said, a narrow divide in the Senate is likely, and in that situation, a moderate like himself will be able to get more done.

"When you've got a narrow divide, a moderate can have a stronger voice," he said.

Fightin' words

Probst had planned to run for re-election for his seat in the House, but changed his mind and decided to run for the Senate after the special legislative session. He did not think the special session was warranted, and said he did not accept his per diem payment for the session.

Because Probst already had started campaigning for re-election, he ended up with two campaign funds. He raised $32,421.69 for his re-election campaign, $12,561.42 of which he spent. He is now asking his donors to permit him roll the funds into his current campaign fund for the Senate. For this campaign, he has raised $21,797.21 and has spent $9,513.18. Benton has raised $86,404.59 and has spent $11,137.31.

Benton alleges that Probst deceived members of his party and decided to run for senator only because the Democratic Caucus promised $250,000 in negative ads attacking Benton.

King, of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, said he has never heard of money for negative ads being promised by anyone or to anyone.

"I don't know where he would have heard that," he said. "Don Benton seems to make up facts at the same pace he misses votes."

Probst said Benton's statement was "entirely wrong and untrue."

Probst said he was completely up-front with Speaker of the House Frank Chopp about his decision to run for the Senate and to end his re-election campaign for the House. He felt he could have a stronger impact and better promote bipartisan cooperation in the Senate than in the House, he said.

"It just became clear that there was not a sense of urgency in the legislature about fixing the economy," he said.

Probst said he has not had any trouble obtaining written consent from his donors to transfer the money from his re-election campaign fund to his new fund.