OLYMPIA — In the August primaries, Democratic candidates for the Washington Legislature took leads in more than a dozen state House and Senate races, including many seats nobody thought would be competitive.
Now, as they seek to convert that energy into actual victories, Democratic groups are outstripping Republicans in campaign spending on legislative races.
Four key spending committees used by the Democratic Party are outspending their Republican counterparts by a wide margin, according to reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission as of Wednesday afternoon. Meanwhile, Democratic candidates represent eight of the top 10 legislative campaigns for fundraising.
The contests are playing out across Washington’s 49 legislative districts, and down an election ballot that includes four hard-fought state ballot initiatives and a trio of intensely-watched U.S. congressional races.
The legislative races will determine the balance of power in Olympia, where Democrats currently hold the governorship, the state House by two seats and the Senate by one seat. Democratic gains could allow them to pursue an ambitious policy agenda, such as an expansion of health care, a capital-gains tax and new environmental protections.
Republicans are seeking to limit Democratic gains — and Democratic power — in what they acknowledge is a tough year. Research has shown the party that controls the presidency traditionally loses seats in Congress and state legislatures during midterm elections.
But GOP officials and campaign operatives say they’ve been outspent in previous years and have still managed to pick up seats.
“It comes down to the individuals, it comes down to the fact that our candidates better represent the districts,” said Washington State Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich, adding later: “At some point, money on the airwaves becomes noise.”
Four political action committees used by the Democratic Party for House and Senate races have spent a combined $9.1 million in this year’s campaigns, compared to $5.3 million spent by the four corresponding Republican committees, state records show.
A key House race in the 19th Legislative District is drawing lots of money and attention. Democrat Erin Frasier is challenging Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen. In the August primaries, Walsh bested Frasier by just 136 votes.
Outside groups in that race have spent nearly $470,000 so far.
In one example, election mailers funded and designed by conservatives were produced to look like they came from a progressive organization — and encouraged people to write in another Democrat instead of voting for Frasier. The mailers drew fierce protests from Democrats, progressive groups and the Washington State Labor Council, whose president called them “dirty politics at its worst.”
As of Wednesday, outside groups had spent about $196,000 in ads against Walsh. Nearly all that money comes from a group called Mainstream Voters of WA, which gets most of its funding from the Harry Truman Fund and a pro-civil-rights political organization, Justice for All PAC.
Walsh criticized that spending, which he said produced misleading and untruthful ads against him. In an email, he compared the ads against him to the conservative mailers against Frasier, and called Democrats’ outrage “inconsistent.”
“While my campaign tracks the hit pieces mailed and broadcast about me, we don’t whine about them,” Walsh wrote. “We just stay positive and focus on the tax policy, gun-rights and property-rights issues that are important to the voters of LD19.”
Some of the biggest-dollar races revolve around a handful of Republican-held Senate seats, with political action committees fueling millions of dollars in independent ads.
In the 26th District, which includes parts of Kitsap and Pierce counties, Democrat Emily Randall faces Republican Marty McClendon in the contest to replace retiring Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard. Randall has raised $616,592, the most this year for a legislative candidate. McClendon has raised $340,016, ranking 12th.
In that race, outside groups have spent nearly $2 million, with most of it geared toward negative ads to tear down the opponent. That includes nearly $900,000 in spending against Randall, with most of that coming from a group called WA Forward. The group gets its funding from the Senate Republican political action committee, called The Leadership Council.
About $525,000 in outside spending has gone against McClendon. Most of that comes from New Direction PAC, which gets much of its funding from the Democratic Party’s legislative committees and several unions.
In the 30th District, Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, is being challenged by Democrat Claire Wilson. Miloscia has raised $528,305, the third most this year; Wilson has raised $447,916, the fifth-highest sum for a candidate this year.
Outside groups have spent nearly $770,000 opposing Wilson. That spending has largely come from WA Forward and another outside group, South Sound Future PAC Enterprise WA.
South Sound gets its funding from the Washington Association of Realtors and another committee, Enterprise WA Jobs PAC. Major donors of Enterprise WA include Tesoro, Phillips 66, Chevron and the Building Industry Association of Washington.
Miloscia has drawn roughly $594,000 in independent spending against his campaign. Most of that comes from a political action committee called South King County Deserves Better. Campaign records show it gets most of its money from two Democratic Party committees, including the Harry Truman Fund.
Used by House Democrats, the Harry Truman Fund this year has spent more than ever before on legislation races — $2.83 million. Its big donors include the Washington Education Association, SEIU’s Washington State Council along with SEIU chapters 775 and 1199NW, and the Puyallup and Muckleshoot Indian tribes.
Meanwhile, the House Democratic Campaign Committee (HDCC) has spent a little over $2.54 million, beating its 2016 total, which had been its biggest number in recent years.
That committee has funded candidates across the state, including five-figure donations to Democratic challengers running against GOP Reps. Mark Harmsworth, of Mill Creek; Dave Hayes, of Camano Island; and Mike Volz, of Spokane.
“We will win seats, whether it’s a couple or a lot, I don’t know yet, and we won’t know until it’s election night,” said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, chair of the HDCC.
The HDCC is also dipping into Senate races, including a $72,000 contribution to Wilson and $50,000 apiece to the campaigns of Randall and Pinky Vargas, the Democrat challenging Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.