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Washington state Democrats, Republicans vying for advantage in 2020 election

A ballot drop box in Washington. (Feliks Banel, KIRO Radio)

The past few election cycles have been tough on Republicans in the state Legislature. Democrats flipped the Senate in 2017, giving the party thin majorities in both chambers, and extending those majorities significantly in 2018.

But with ongoing divisiveness in the state and the country over the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and conversations around defunding police, 2020 is poised to be one of the most significant elections in recent history if you ask State Republican Party Chair Caleb Heimlich.

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“My fear as a Republican is that if we tip too far out of balance, we’re basically going to become like a California or a state that is just a one-party dominated state, and I think this is the election that could change that,” Heimlich said.

Republicans and Democrats alike are eyeing gains from this Washington to the other, including the race for the White House, Congressional races, and a variety of statewide races, including the governor and state Attorney General, both of whom are running for third terms.

But with about 75% of state legislative seats up for election, there is a lot of attention there as well, from Democrats hoping to grow majorities even more, to Republicans trying to fight to regain what they lost.

Perhaps the biggest race to watch is for state Senate in Pierce County’s moderate 28th District, where Democrats have high hopes for T’wina Nobles, who is unseating Republican Senator Steve O’Ban, a frequent Sound Transit critic who’s held the seat since 2013.

“T’wina Nobles is an amazing candidate, given her background, given her experiences, and it’s such a contrast with an accomplished, smart, hardworking African-American woman to be able to represent that district versus Steve O’Ban. He spends his time trying to take away a woman’s right to choose with the lawsuits that he is a part of. I think it would be no contest; no contest in terms of what’s better for women in the district and the state of Washington if T’wina wins,” said Washington Democrats Chair Tina Podlodowski.

“We have not had a female African-American senator since Rosa Franklin (1993-2010) and that is a travesty,” she added.

But Republicans are working hard to retain O’Ban’s seat in the 28th, and hope to pick up two House seats with wins in the open Position 2 seat and defeating incumbent Mari Leavitt in Position 1.

Both sides are eyeing the 16th District Senate seat vacated by Republican Maureen Walsh, with a pair of Republicans running, including Rep. Bill Jenkin. But Democrats feel pretty good about the chances of former diplomat Danielle Garbe Reser taking the win in Walla Walla.

Democrats are also angling to flip Clark County’s 17th District Senate seat, held by Lynda Wilson, with social worker Daniel Smith, who currently manages a Community Health Plan office.

But Heimlich says Republicans are feeling good about being able to hold the Senate seat, and Rep. Vicki Kraft’s ability to defend the Position 1 seat from Tanisha Harris, who Democrats hope can take the win this time around after coming up about 850 votes short in 2018.

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Republicans are also focused on hanging onto Rep. Jim Walsh’s 19th district seat where he faces Democrats Marianna Everson and Montesano City Councilor Clint Bryson. But Heimlich says there is a potential pickup for Republicans in the other House seat in the district should Joel McEntire get the win over Rep. Brian Blake. McEntire was a little more than 5,000 votes behind when the two ran against each other in 2018.

Podlodowski is very confident in Democratic candidates up and down the I-5 corridor. Dems hope to sweep Puyallup’s 25th District with Julie Door taking the Senate seat vacated by Republican Hans Zeiger, as well as both House seats with a win for Brian Duthie against Puyallup City Councilmember Cyndy Jacobsen in the open Position 2, and a victory for Jamie Smith in the rematch against Republican incumbent Kelly Chambers for Position 1 where Smith was 611 votes behind in 2018.

More than a dozen incumbents in the House left office on their own this year, along with a trio of state senators, leaving much for grabs.

Democrats are feeling strong across the board regardless which part of the state they’re vying for.

“Far too often people have thought, oh, Eastern or Central Washington, those are places where Democrats don’t win. I think that the reality is that Eastern and Central Washington have been places where maybe previous Democratic Party chairs haven’t invested in and done the work to organize people. We’ve done this work now for almost three years and I think you’re going to see it pay off,” Podlodowski said.

Republicans are not quite as confident, but do feel they have a solid shot at making up some ground, especially with a lot of frustration from the handling of the pandemic, economy, and the overall feeling of not having a voice with what appears to be a single branch of government making most decisions for people in the state.

Heimlich says Republicans are hopeful those issues can help push them to victory in many statewide races, but admits making up all their recent losses in Olympia will be tough in one election.

“It would take a lot,” Heimlich said. “I mean, I think we could get in striking distance in the House, and the Senate is tougher because there are four-year cycles. So it would be a long shot to get all those seats back.”

“But even if we’re gaining back three seats or four seats, every seat matters in terms of bringing that back into balance and positioning us better going into the future,” he added.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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