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Big money flowing, ads attacking in the battle for control of Washington Legislature

By Daniel Beekman, The Seattle Times
Published: August 1, 2022, 6:02am

SEATTLE — “Radical politicians are making things worse. Just ask John Lovick,” a TV ad blared this month, attacking the Washington state senator — a Democrat from Snohomish County.

Similar ads have targeted a number of Democrats in swing districts across Western Washington ahead of Tuesday’s primary election, paid for by a political-action committee connected to Republicans that’s spending independently from the campaigns of actual GOP candidates.

Such PACs, which can raise money without the same limits that apply to candidates, had reported more than $3 million in independent spending as of Wednesday — with more to come before the general election in November. The spending includes attacks on Republicans, too.

The largest spender is the PAC that sponsored the anti-Lovick ad, WA Wins, which has shelled out more than $1 million in state legislative races, mostly on cable ads and mailers attacking Democratic candidates for state Senate in suburban districts clustered around Puget Sound. The Washington Observer first covered the anti-Lovick ad and the WA Wins effort.

The spending comes as Republicans try to make up some ground in this state by capitalizing on a challenging political environment for Democrats locally and across the country. The GOP needs to flip four state Senate seats to take control of that body, whereas Democrats are hoping to cement recent gains.

The names of the PACs and the way they are funded can somewhat obscure where the ads are coming from.

WA Wins is 100 percent bankrolled by The Leadership Council, a PAC associated with the state Senate’s Republican Caucus. The Leadership Council, in turn, is mostly funded by national GOP organizations and by corporations like Altria, Google, Amazon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Chevron and Walmart.

“John Lovick prioritizes criminals!” one WA Wins mailer says, citing various votes by the lawmaker related to justice-system reforms. Lovick is a former Snohomish County executive and Snohomish County sheriff who served as a state trooper for 31 years and was named Trooper of the Year in 1992. He’s endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police.

“This is just out-of-state money pouring in. They’re spending an extreme amount and the attack ads are not true,” Lovick said Thursday, suggesting the ads are partly meant to make voters fear him as a Black man.

Besides Lovick in the 44th Legislative District, the TV ads and mailers sponsored by WA Wins have taken aim at senate candidates like Emily Randall in the 26th (Kitsap Peninsula), Claire Wilson in the 30th (South King County), Sharon Shewmake in the 42nd (Whatcom County), Manka Dhingra in the 45th (Eastside), Satwinder Kaur and Claudia Kauffman in the 47th (South King County) and June Robinson in the 38th (Snohomish County).

Randall, Wilson, Dhingra and Robinson are incumbents. Shewmake is leaving her state House seat to challenge a Republican incumbent, while Kaur and Kauffman are competing with a Republican for an open seat.

The No. 2 independent spender in state legislative races is on the opposite side from WA Wins. New Direction PAC is funded by labor-union groups like the SEIU Washington State Council PAC, the Washington Federation of State Employees and the Washington Education Association, plus PACs affiliated with the Democratic Party — the Harry Truman Fund and Kennedy Fund.

As of Wednesday, New Direction PAC had reported spending over $853,000, opposing Republicans and supporting Democrats with mailers and digital ads in some of the same districts that WA Wins has targeted, plus others.

“Linda Kochmar’s ‘very conservative’ agenda isn’t for us,” says a mailer from New Direction PAC attacking Kochmar, who’s challenging Wilson and who labeled herself “very conservative” in an online questionnaire.

“I have no idea who’s doing what,” Kochmar said about the independent spending Thursday. “Both sides are out there doing all kinds of stuff.”

The No. 3 spender is Evergreen Progress, a PAC wholly funded by the Washington State Republican Party that had reported dropping more than $640,000 as of Wednesday, mostly on a TV ad bashing Democrats statewide for inflation and crime and on mailers supporting GOP candidates.

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Yet another conservative PAC, Citizens for Progress, had reported spending more than $120,000, almost exclusively to attack Kaur with TV and digital ads, plus mailers. Citizens for Progress is wholly funded by Jobs PAC, which is backed by donations from large corporations and business groups.

In a Facebook video this week, Kaur pushed back against mailers sponsored by WA Wins that slam her for supporting higher taxes as a Kent City Council member, including a utility-tax hike. That proposed increase was meant to boost police hiring and Kaur’s Republican opponent for state Senate, Kent City Council President Bill Boyce, also supported it, she noted.

“I’m not some crazy tax lady,” she said in the video.

There didn’t used to be so much independent spending before the primary election in Washington, said Dean Nielsen, a political consultant doing work this year for multiple Democratic candidates and for New Direction PAC, attributing the change to an increase in political spending across the board and to “how high the stakes are for both parties” in 2022.

Chad Minnick, a political consultant working this year for multiple GOP candidates, said Republicans “want to probe and see how many races they can have in play” come November. In some races attracting big money, “the Democrats are the bleeding swimmers and the Republicans are the sharks,” with conservative PACs attacking and progressive PACs trying to help, he added.

The Republican-associated PACs are not only targeting Democrats in obvious swing districts, like the 44th, Nielsen said. They’re also spending in districts where Democrats have held a clear upper hand recently, like the 45th, to test the water in those areas and determine where even more money could make a difference leading up to the general election, he said.