On Tuesday, Washington voters will decide a slew of primaries – including big races to oversee the state’s elections and potentially remake the partisan makeup of the state Legislature and the U.S. House.
Political reporters Austin Jenkins and Troy Brynelson recently sat down with Crystal Ligori to talk about the campaigns they’re most interested in on a special election preview episode of OPB Politics Now. Here are the highlights:
Crystal Ligori: Let’s start with the big races. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray is seeking a sixth term and appears to have a pretty smooth path towards reelection. Republicans stand a better chance with another position that wouldn’t normally even be on the ballot. The GOP held the office of secretary of state for nearly six decades – until last fall. That’s when Kim Wyman resigned to go to work for the Biden administration and Gov. Jay Inslee appointed a Democrat, state Sen. Steve Hobbs to replace her.
Now Hobbs has to run to serve out the remaining two years. So what’s his competition look like?
Austin Jenkins: It’s a crowded field with eight candidates running, but I think this is really a three-way race between Hobbs, Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, who is running as a nonpartisan candidate and one of the Republican candidates. There are two I’m watching: state Sen. Keith Wagoner and former state Sen. Mark Miloscia. Miloscia has raised more money, but Wagoner has the endorsements of former Secretaries of State Ralph Munro and Sam Reed.
Of course, just two candidates will emerge from this primary. The question on my mind is whether in a race like this, for the top election official in the state, whether voters will stick with candidates who declare a party or perhaps be intrigued by the idea of a candidate who doesn’t run with a party label.
Ligori: The Washington Secretary of State, it’s worth reminding folks, oversees elections and election security and that’s an especially fraught topic right now, given former President Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and the continuing investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. What impact is all of that having on the primary?
Jenkins: That is certainly informing or influencing some of the candidacies. But we may have to wait until after the primary to know if it’s animating voters. One of the candidates for Secretary of State, Tamborine Borrelli, leads a group that sued county auditors over the 2020 election. So her candidacy typifies this moment we’re in, in terms of frankly large swaths of the American public doubting election results. On the flip side, Julie Anderson, the Pierce County auditor, says Washington has a gold-standard election system but says there’s always room for improvement and Steve Hobbs is very focused on combating election misinformation and disinformation. So these topics are certainly a part of this primary campaign.
Ligori: Washington, like Oregon, votes by mail. Are any of these candidates talking about major changes in the process?
Jenkins: Republican Mark Miloscia, the former state senator, wants to redesign the election observer system. He wants to establish fraud and audit divisions in every county and do more “cleaning” of the voter rolls. He’s also calling for more mandatory and random audits. He would also do away with same-day voter registration and require voter IDs. Other candidates for secretary of state have called for an end to vote-by-mail and returning to in-person voting. That would be a dramatic change, but not one that’s likely. But we are seeing a range of proposals across the spectrum. In Washington, the top two finish the top two finishers in the primary advance to the November general election.
Ligori: We talked about the Trump impact on the secretary of state’s race. But Troy, you’ve been covering another big primary in which the former president is looming large. Can you give us an overview of the field in Washington’s third congressional district?
Troy Brynelson: Trump is definitely casting a shadow over this race. That dates back to when incumbent U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler voted to impeach Trump after Jan. 6. That caused a conservative backlash and multiple Republicans rushed in to try to knock her off. And really it’s the Republicans right now who’ve been dominating this race. They’ve raised the most funds, they’re all sort of clambering for one of the top two spots.
You’ve got Joe Kent, who is a career soldier endorsed by Trump. He’s raised about $2 million.
Then there’s Christian podcaster Heidi St. John. She’s raised about $1 million dollars, and she’s also benefited greatly from outside spending, Then there’s incumbent Herrera Buetler, she’s raised about $3.5 million. Meanwhile, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez is basically the sole Democrat in the race; she’s raised about $240,000. But her campaign is banking that she can corner the market on Democrats.
Ligori: What are the big issues that are being talked about in that race?
Brynelson: I would say that this has been a nationalized race: If you attend a town hall or a rally, they’re mostly talking about issues that aren’t exclusive to Southwest Washington. There’s a lot of talk among Republicans about inflation, gas prices, energy independence. There’s also a lot of conversations about supporting police.
On the Democrat side, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez’s campaign believes that with the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade, that’s probably awakened a lot of Democratic voters who might not have otherwise voted in the primary.
Ligori: And something unusual is happening in this election, at least unusual during the COVID-19 pandemic: Candidates are actively out on the campaign trail – or most of them are.
Brynelson: There’s a lot of in-person campaigning occurring, especially when compared with 2020 when the most we saw were like town halls where everyone stays in their car. Right now, you have Kent basically holding town halls every day, sometimes multiple times a day in cities and towns across the district. It’s not just him. Herrera Beutler, by contrast, hasn’t really spent too much time campaigning in the district. I caught up with her on Monday on a tour of a waste treatment plant in Washougal, and she said that at this point, heading into the primary, her strategy for campaigning is to trust the voters who are following her votes in D.C.
Ligori: There’s also a lot of outside money that’s being spent on this race. Who are the major financial players and what do they want?
Brynelson: Outside expenditures have really picked up in recent weeks. The biggest development here is that there’s been significant spending on behalf of Heidi St. John; as I mentioned earlier, more than $700,000 has benefited her campaign alone. That’s interesting because polls and her own campaign finance sort of put her at about third amongst the three Republicans. The super PAC that gave her that money is called Conservatives for a Strong America, and they haven’t really disclosed much about themselves or who their donors are. All we know is that they’re based on the East Coast. Among the other campaigns, the conclusion that they’re drawing is that those funds are likely designed to benefit Herrera Beutler – to amplify St. John’s message among conservatives and likely peel away folks who might have otherwise voted for Kent.
Ligori: Austin, all of Washington’s state House members and half of the state senators are up for election this year. For much of the past 20 years or so, Democrats controlled both chambers. But Republicans think they stand a chance of winning at least one, if not both this year. Can you talk about why?
Jenkins: In the House, Republicans would have to pick up nine seats; in the Senate, they’d have to gain four to get the majority. The Senate is actually probably a harder nut to crack. Republicans would really have to run the tables there. Republicans could win the House if there was a so called “red wave.” But at this point, my sense is that it’s more likely Democrats will lose some seats, but not the majority. And I say that in part because of some of the recent polling, especially in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned, seems to favor Democrats, But it’s early yet, and there are a number of months between now and November.
I wasn’t here for it, but 1994 is a year that a lot of people in Olympia remember; that was the year of the Gingrich Revolution, when Republicans took control of Congress. Here in Washington, in the House, Democrats had a supermajority going into November and they lost that majority to Republicans. So it can happen.
Ligori: Gov. Jay Inslee’s current term is up in 2024. How much does control of the legislature impact his agenda for the next two years?
Jenkins: It’s pretty critical. He’s a three-term governor. That’s unusual. He is obviously prioritizing climate change measures as his signature issue; when Republicans held the state senate, he was really stymied, especially on climate matters. So I say there’s some actual bad blood between Inslee and legislative Republicans, especially as a result of his emergency powers during COVID and how he’s handled the pandemic. If they had control of one or both chambers, I do not think they would feel any obligation to help him get his agenda across the finish line, and in fact they might delight in thwarting it.
It’s been interesting how many fundraising missives the governor has been sending out in recent weeks for someone who’s presumably not running again. He’s regularly communicating with his donor base.