Race to decide if West Coast keeps its only GOP-led chamber
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The Washington state Senate is the only Republican-led legislative chamber on the West Coast, and a special election in Seattle's wealthy eastern suburbs has drawn millions of dollars and national attention to two political newcomers vying for the seat in November.
Democrat Manka Dhingra and Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund are seeking to serve the last year of a four-year term left vacant by the death of Republican Sen. Andy Hill.
Republicans, with the help of a Democrat who caucuses with them, currently control the Senate by a single seat. But Democrats hope the district - which includes Redmond, Woodinville and Sammamish - will vote as it did in last year's presidential, U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections: Democrat.
If the Washington Senate flips, the state will join Oregon and California with Democratic one-party rule in both legislative chambers and the governor's office.
"We'd love to see a blue wall of Democratic legislatures in the West," said Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to get Democrats elected to statehouses across the U.S.
Republicans note Hill was elected twice during a time that the district also twice voted strongly in favor of former President Barack Obama.
Washington voters are independent-minded and will make their decision "based on keeping balance in Olympia," said Justin Richards, the Republican State Leadership Committee's vice president of political affairs and communications.
While Democrats hope one-party control will break the gridlock over the state budget that has led to numerous overtime sessions in recent years, Republicans see it as a green light for new taxes sought by Gov. Jay Inslee, including a carbon tax and capital gains tax. Also part of the narrative is the potential impact of the national political landscape - most pointedly President Donald Trump - on the race.
"If I was a Democratic strategist, every Republican candidate's middle name would be Trump," independent pollster Stuart Elway said.
Dhingra, a 43-year-old senior deputy prosecuting attorney with the King County Prosecutor's Office, had a 10-point lead over Englund in August's top-two primary as both advanced to the November ballot. Dhingra was born in India, and her family moved to the U.S. when she was a teen. She oversees therapeutic alternative courts for the mentally ill and veterans and founded a nonprofit to address domestic violence in the area's South Asian community. She cites Trump's election as the catalyst for her desire to run.
"I never thought an election could impact me the way it did," she said.
A month later, she walked into her first Democratic Party district meeting.
"It was really interesting to me because when I walked into this room - it was really packed - 75 percent of the room was women," she said. After that meeting and conversations with friends and family, "I knew that I wanted to do something where I could have statewide impact."
Englund, 33, recently moved back to her home state from Japan, where her husband is still stationed with the Marines. She has been criticized for moving into the district just one month before announcing her candidacy, but she argues she returned to Washington to be closer to her aging parents.
Englund said Republican state Sen. Dino Rossi, who was appointed to the seat after Hill's death, reached out to her once he learned she was in the district.
"This was not on my radar," she said. "For him to believe I could do it was a big thing."
Englund, who is Korean-American, said her experience working as a staffer for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington as well as for The Bitcoin Foundation, a digital currency advocacy group, and on projects for the military gives her a broader perspective on legislating at the state level. But she said she knows her opponents will try to tie her to Trump as the campaign picks up in the coming weeks.
"To assume that all Republicans are the same, or to assume all Democrats are the same, is a wrong assumption," Englund said, noting she didn't vote for either Trump or Clinton but wrote in an alternate candidate.
Other states including Virginia and New Jersey have legislative races this year, but the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee considers Washington's the most important, Post said.
The money follows that sentiment, with more than $4 million spent so far by both sides, though most of that has been from outside groups.
Ballots for the Nov. 7 general election will be mailed to voters Oct. 20. The winner will need to run again in 2018.