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News / Politics / Election

Where money is gushing into Washington Legislature elections — and why

By Daniel Beekman, The Seattle Times
Published: November 4, 2022, 8:35am

In a Facebook video this week, Washington state Senate candidate Jesse Young showed and objected to an ad that called him “an embarrassment to our community” over allegations that he verbally abused employees.

In a recent TikTok post, incumbent Emily Randall denounced a mailer that promised to “Set the record straight” in her clash with Young and that underlined the word “straight” while taking aim at her, a queer woman.

That’s a taste of the race in the 26th Legislative District, which has attracted more cash than any other legislative contest this year. Not only have the Young and Randall campaigns combined to spend more than $1.6 million, but political-action committees have independently spent $2.4 million more, with much of that gushing into attack ads on cable and in mailboxes.

Whereas candidates have contribution and spending restrictions, PACs that operate independently, not coordinating with candidate campaigns, can raise and spend unlimited amounts. They’ve reported more than $12 million in spending on legislative races this year, using contributions from oil corporations, labor unions, dentists, landlords and other donors — sometimes passing money through multiple PACs.

Tensions are running particularly high in the 26th District, which encompasses Kitsap Peninsula communities like Bremerton, Port Orchard and Gig Harbor and which is almost evenly split between Republican and Democratic voters. Several other Washington swing districts are also drawing attention from deep-pocketed PACs, as the parties wrestle for control in the Legislature over issues like taxes, policing and guns.

In most of the ads and on the campaign trail, Republicans are urging voters to blame Democrats for high prices, crime and homelessness, while Democrats are promising to protect abortion rights and strengthen social services.

The stakes

Democrats currently control the state Senate, 28 seats to 21, and the state House, 57 to 41. They’ve been adding seats since 2016 and have used their substantial majorities to pass laws like a tax on major capital gains, a sales tax credit for lower-income households and a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, along with laws meant to regulate policing after 2020’s racial justice protests. Some are seeking a state constitutional amendment for abortion rights and a ban on the sale of military-style assault weapons.

Republicans need to flip four Senate seats and nine House seats to win majorities, which appears unlikely based on the results of the Aug. 2 primary election. Those were disappointing for the GOP, with hopes for a red surge against high gas prices and President Joe Biden blunted by concerns over the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that struck down abortion protections.

Still, Republicans could slow what progressive Democrats hope to accomplish in Olympia merely by reducing the gap between the parties and empowering more conservative Democrats. GOP candidates are telling voters they want to repeal some of the recent taxes and regulations that Democrats have passed.

They’re calling abortion rights a nonissue, given that Washington’s voter-approved law guarantees the right up to the point of fetal viability, while Democrats are warning voters that no rights should be taken for granted when dealing with a party arguably embodied by Donald Trump.

“This year you can’t overstate the importance of abortion,” state Senate Democratic campaign committee chair Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle) said in an interview earlier this fall. “We’re hearing that all over the place.”

“I have to acknowledge” that abortion rights are “a great wedge issue for the other side,” but GOP candidates can sway voters who think Washington is on the wrong track, added state Senate Republican leader John Braun, R-Centralia. “We’re in a fight to pick up one, two maybe three seats.”

26th District

The Randall-Young race is super contentious partly because the 26th District is purple, politically speaking: Randall won her seat in 2018 by only 102 votes. Voters include “REI Republicans” who may align with Democrats on environmental issues, blue-collar Democrats with some conservative views and lots of independent-minded voters, said Derek Young, a Democrat who represents some of the same areas on the Pierce County Council.

“You have a number of people who are willing to vote for either party, which is increasingly rare,” said Young (no relation to Jesse Young).

The 26th District contest is also intense because of the matchup. In other races where Democratic and GOP candidates are courting moderate voters, the rivals sometimes sound similar. But Jesse Young and Randall don’t.

First elected in 2014 and endorsed by law-enforcement groups, Jesse Young says he wants to stop “out-of-control spending” and “make crime illegal again.” His website says he opposes “critical race theory” in schools, claiming it teaches “that America is evil and all white people are inherently racist!”

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The first Latina elected in the 26th District, Randall is endorsed by Planned Parenthood and many unions. She touts her work in the Legislature on laws like the Paid Family and Medical Leave program, as well as her support for investments in public education, including school-based health centers.

“More than a red or blue community, we’re a union community,” Randall said in an interview, vowing to stand up against corporate interests.

Young has criticized Randall’s vote for a law that limited vehicle chases by police. Asked in a debate how to mitigate cost of living increases, Randall cited the tax credit scheduled to begin next year, while Young called for repealing an imminent gas-tax increase. Both have battled Tacoma Narrows Bridge tolls, with Randall sponsoring a law this year to reduce them.

Young’s campaign didn’t respond to interview requests.

The spending

Young’s campaign has reported more than $700,000 in expenditures and Randall’s campaign has reported more than $900,000. Independent PACs have outspent the candidates in their own race.

The biggest player has been the Democratic Party-backed New Direction PAC, which has spent more than $1 million against Young and in favor of Randall. It paid for the mailer that highlighted Young’s treatment of employees, among other ads, including a mailer citing his opposition to various gun regulations and a TV commercial slamming his repeated efforts to restrict abortions.

The House has barred Jesse Young from overseeing a legislative assistant since a 2016 House investigation into allegations of mistreatment concluded he’d engaged in a “pattern of intimidating and hostile behavior.” He denied the conclusions at the time and in his recent video referred to the mailer as “a new low,” lacking citations.

Meanwhile, a GOP-backed PAC called WA Wins has spent nearly $600,000 in the race, mostly to attack Randall, and a conservative PAC called Concerned Taxpayers of Washington State has spent more than $300,000, sponsoring ads like the “Set the record straight” mailer that was directed at Randall.

Most ads attacking Randall have concentrated on her policy positions, but that mailer seemed more about “my identity,” she said, calling the ad unacceptable, especially at a time when many LGBTQ youth are at risk of suicide, anxiety and depression.

Across all Washington legislative races, New Direction PAC and WA Wins have been the top independent spenders, investing not only in the 26th District but also in South King County’s 47th District, Whatcom County’s 42nd District, Snohomish County’s 44th District and elsewhere.

The donors

State law says PACs must list their top donors on the ads they sponsor, but some of their top donors are many times other PACs.

For example, New Direction PAC’s top donors are Democratic Party PACs called the Harry Truman Fund and Kennedy Fund, along with unions for service workers and state employees. Top donors to the Harry Truman Fund and Kennedy Fund include unions and PACS for trial lawyers and hospitals.

Every dollar donated to WA Wins has come from The Leadership Council, a Republican Party PAC whose top donors include the Republican State Leadership Committee, GOPAC Election Fund and PACs for dentists, hospitals, banks, real estate agents and rental property owners.

The shell games can make the destination of some dollars impossible to trace. GOPAC Election Fund — which this summer received $250,000 from AeroPrecision, a Pierce County-based company that makes semi-automatic rifle components — has directed money across the country, including $335,000 to The Leadership Council here.

AeroPrecision has spoken out against Washington’s new ban on high-capacity ammo clips and potential ban on assault weapons. CEO Scott Dover didn’t respond to an interview request.