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Sunday, December 10, 2023
Dec. 10, 2023

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Republicans hit blue wall in Washington: Meet your new state Legislature


OLYMPIA — Republicans hit a blue wall in the Washington state Legislature election this month, repulsed by Democrats who continue to build power in Olympia.

While Marie Gluesenkamp Perez made noise nationally with a U.S. House upset and Patty Murray silenced her doubters with her sixth straight U.S. Senate victory, Democrats lower down on the Nov. 8 ballot quietly bolstered their control over the Washington state Legislature, setting the stage for an action-packed lawmaking session that opens less than two months from now.

Here are six things to know about the legislative results:

Democrats repelled challenges

Republicans thought they could gain ground in the Legislature by stoking dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden, high gas prices and crime. But Republican appointees on the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion at the national level in June, stirring some concerned voters to support Democrats in local races.

Not only did Democratic incumbents in Washington win every legislative race they entered, repelling their Republican challengers even in swing districts the GOP thought were ripe for change, but Democratic candidates also picked up a state Senate seat and look likely to pick up a state House seat.

Tina Podlodowski, who chairs the Washington State Democratic Party, said many voters backed Democrats because they viewed abortion protections, other civil rights and democracy as under attack by Republicans.

“Since 2016, we’ve seen the Republican Party essentially become the party of Trump and MAGA,” Podlodowski said.

While Republicans accused Democratic lawmakers of placing dangerous limits on policing in response to 2020’s racial justice protests, Democrats touted recent steps in Olympia, like the establishment of a paid parental leave program and a sales tax credit for lower-income households.

John Lovick in Snohomish County, Claire Wilson in King County and Emily Randall on the Kitsap Peninsula were among the Democrats who retained their Senate seats under pressure in suburban battleground districts.

Democratic Rep. Sharon Shewmake unseated Republican Sen. Simon Sefzik in Whatcom County and Democratic candidate Clyde Shavers narrowly leads Republican Rep. Greg Gilday in Island County. Those contests attracted millions of dollars in independent spending by political action committees.

Ultimately, the results mean Democrats are poised for majorities of 29 to 20 in the Senate and 58 to 40 in the House when the 2023 session begins.

Whatcom went blue

Democrats swept the 42nd Legislative District for the first time in 30-plus years. It sprawls from Bellingham through rural areas to the Canadian border.

“We had the better candidates and we had the better campaigns,” said Andrew Reding, who chairs the Whatcom County Democrats, arguing three moderate Democrats were matched against “hardcore right wingers.”

Shewmake, an economics professor, edged out Sefzik, a recent college graduate who interned in the Trump White House and who was appointed to the Senate in January, after longtime GOP incumbent Doug Ericksen suddenly died.

In state House races, Rep. Alicia Rule fended off Tawsha Thompson, who lost her police job based on a COVID-19 vaccination mandate. Joe Timmons, a staffer for Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, defeated Dan Johnson, who was criticized for having shared extreme social media posts in the past.

Sefzik last week attributed the results to the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling and to demographic changes, like suburban growth. Republicans are struggling with young voters on issues like climate change and guns, he added.

Some contests are close

Two swing-district House races were still particularly close as of Friday.

Shavers led Gilday by 158 votes in the 10th Legislative District despite catching flak from Republicans and his own father for exaggerating his military record during his campaign. The controversy erupted the week before ballots were due and probably cost Shavers some votes, Podlodowski said.

Though Randall defeated GOP Rep. Jesse Young to retain her Senate seat in the 26th Legislative District, which spans Kitsap and Pierce counties, Republican Spencer Hutchins led Democrat Adison Richards by 719 votes for Young’s House seat. The district will likely remain ultracompetitive.

Manual recounts could be required in those races after the election results are officially certified but recounts rarely change outcomes.

Native representation grew

Three Native candidates won seats this month, which will triple Native representation in the Legislature, as compared to the most recent session. All three are Democrats from districts in Western Washington.

Rep. Debra Lekanoff (Aleut and Tlingit) was reelected in the 40th Legislative District, which includes parts of Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties. In King County’s 47th Legislative District, which includes Covington and parts of Kent and Auburn, Claudia Kauffman (Nez Perce) won the Senate seat she held once before and Chris Stearns (Navajo) won a House seat. Kauffman has worked for the Muckleshoot Tribe, whose reservation is located nearby.

The Legislature has included multiple Native lawmakers in certain years past but Lekanoff and Kauffman will be the first Native women to serve together.

“Representation really matters,” considering there are more than 300,000 Native people and 29 recognized tribes in the state, Stearns said.

Democrats may tackle abortion, guns

Having cemented their majorities, Democrats intend to “build on” on progress they’ve made in recent legislative sessions, said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, mentioning gun violence and child care.

Inslee joined Shewmake in Bellingham last month to propose a state constitutional amendment for abortion access, and Democrats could seek a ban on the sales of military-style assault weapons.

Democrats won’t “shy away” from steps supported by “an overwhelming majority of Washingtonians,” like access to reproductive care, Billig said.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said her caucus — with 12 new members — has yet to flesh out specific priorities. But housing, behavioral health and workforce shortages are likely to come up in 2023, she said.

Republicans have “got to change”

Most GOP legislative candidates promised political balance and economic prosperity, said Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Chehalis.

But they struggled to overcome Democratic messaging on abortion and to separate from Donald Trump, he said, calling the election disappointing and suggesting Republicans need someone to “pull people together” nationally.

“To be successful in Washington, you have to win in suburban districts, and President Trump is deeply unpopular in suburban districts,” Braun said. “If we’re going to win, we’ve got to change.”

The election results, which may “embolden” Democrats to push controversial policies, will force Republicans to pursue centrist aims, Braun said.

House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox described his incoming caucus as relatively moderate “chamber of commerce-type Republicans,” including more women.

Three far-right members of the current caucus who promoted false conspiracy theories about the 2020 election won’t be back next year: Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, lost to fellow Republican Sam Low, a member of the Snohomish County Council, and Reps. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, and Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, each ran unsuccessfully for Congress.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to legislating with less personalities involved, less conflict and more accomplishment,” Wilcox said.

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