One race may tip Washington’s state Senate from red to blue

Campaign donations are flowing at record pace for a state Senate seat in the high-tech suburbs of Seattle.


Campaign donations are pouring in for a Washington state Senate seat contest because the outcome likely will determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the chamber. Oil companies have written $100,000 checks for political action committees running ads against the Democratic candidate, Manka Dhingra, and in support of Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund. A pair of billionaires who want action on climate change, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, each gave $125,000 to political action committees funding ad campaigns against Englund, and supporting Dhingra. When all is said and done, $8 million dollars likely will have been spent on this state legislative race, political consultants predict. That’s more than triple the amount ever spent on any other Washington state legislative race and more than has ever been spent on any U.S. Congressional race in the state.

The amount of cash flowing into the race reflects the high stakes in this special election to represent the affluent communities east of Seattle. In the August primary, Dhingra, an Indian American county prosecutor, came in first with 51 percent of the vote. Englund, a Korean American whose recent jobs include working in Washington, D.C., for the Conservative Heritage Foundation and Bitcoin, a digital currency, got 41 percent. If Dhingra wins, the state Senate will flip from Republican to Democratic control. Democrats already control the House of Representatives and Gov. Jay Inslee is a Democrat too. That outcome would be a sweet victory for Inslee. Republicans have controlled the state Senate since 2013 and have rebuffed many of his priorities, from climate change legislation to education funding.

“This is the most critical state legislative race this year because it’s the one that can flip a chamber,” says Kurt Fritts, a Democratic political consultant. “This race is really going to set us on one of two courses.” The League of Conservation Voters named it one of the three most important races in the country this year, and Washington Conservation Voters considers the race so significant that it plans to spend more than $500,000 to elect Dhingra, according to Shannon Murphy, the group’s president. (The group already gave $320,000 to a political action committee called New Directions, which funneled money to Eastside Leadership Council, which is running ads against Englund and for Dhingra, according to data from Washington's Public Disclosure Commission.)

Republicans agree on the importance of the contest. The Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group focused on helping Republicans win state-level races, donated $250,000 to a political action committee running attack ads against Dhingra. “Jinyoung Lee Englund is an incredible candidate who will keep balance in state government,” Justin Richards, vice president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, wrote in an email.

Democrats counter that Inslee needs a Democratic state senate to help him stand up to President Donald Trump, who is canceling Obama-era policies meant to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, cars and oil and gas production. “We really have to be on the forefront of addressing climate change,” Dhingra says. “With the tech talent we have in the state, we can be in the position of creating the new green technologies of tomorrow.”

The governor has been meeting with state legislators in recent weeks to shape the climate change bill he’ll try to pass. It’s not clear if it will be a tax on carbon emissions or a cap and trade system, like in California, or something different. In 2015, the legislature refused to act on his cap-and-trade bill. So he directed the Washington state Department of Ecology to set a binding cap on carbon for large emitters like power plants and refineries. The prospects of any future bill passing are dramatically higher if Dhingra wins. “It really is pivotal,” Inslee said in an interview. “(Her victory) opens the door to really developing clean energy.”

Washington’s recent wildfire seasons also improve the odds for action on climate change, Inslee predicted. Hot dry conditions exacerbated the fires, and in September, ash fell like snow in Seattle. “There’s no reason to believe that Washington state, that had to eat smoke for 2 months the last two summers, won’t want to move forward on climate change,” Inslee added.

Climate change is just one of the Democrats’ priorities that could benefit if the legislature switches to Democratic control. Even though Republicans had only a one-vote majority, controlling the senate meant they ran the committees and could block bills. For example, at the request of the state Department of Ecology, Democratic state senators this year introduced a bill designed to increase taxes on oil transported through Washington state “to prevent oil spills and prepare for a rapid, aggressive, and well-coordinated response when spills occur.” The bill would have increased the tax from 4 cents to 6.5 cents per barrel. But it never got out of committee.

Democrats also pushed bills to introduce a carbon pollution tax, promote safer transport of oil by ships instead of by rail, and increase incentives for renewable energy

“Next year those bills will have a very real shot at being passed,” Dhingra says. She would definitely consider supporting an increase in the taxes oil companies pay to transport fuel through the states. The money that oil companies have funneled into the race “highlights that they are worried what is going to happen if I win,” she says.

Chevron and Phillips 66 each donated $100,000 to groups making independent expenditures in the race. The companies didn’t agree to requests for interviews about why they’re spending money in the race. Many of the attack ads against Dhingra accuse her of supporting an income tax; Washington is among the seven states that don’t have one. For instance, one ad by a group called Working Families claims: “Dhingra wants to pick our pocket with a new income tax.” Dhingra says she does not support a tax on earned income but is open to considering a capital gains tax if it’s targeted at the top income brackets.

Taxes are justifiably a big issue in the campaign. In June, the legislature increased property taxes 50 percent to raise $7 billion over four years to fund schools, in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that the state had failed to adequately fund education. The 45th district is home to big tech companies like Microsoft, which has its headquarters in Redmond and employs more than 34,000 people there. That has escalated real estate values, so the property tax hike was especially painful for retirees and middle-income residents of the district. Dhingra wants to roll back that property tax increase. In a candidate forum last month, she advocated replacing it by ending some corporate tax exemptions. Englund responded that keeping Republican control of the state Senate is key to ensuring fair tax reform: “If we really want to have an honest and serious conversation about tax reform, what we need to do is a deep dive into our state spending and that is not going to happen under one-party government,” she said. That’s the only way to avoid one party catering to its special interests, she added.

Public Disclosure Commission data this week showed outside groups had spent nearly equal amounts  $1.1 million  on attack ads against the two candidates, and slightly more on ads in favor or Englund  $433,000  than for Dhingra  $326,000.

The Democratic-leaning group Eastside Leadership Council has run ads connecting Englund to Trump and accusing her of being a “D.C. political operative supported by corporate special interests.” These ads are funded by donations from environmental groups, Bloomberg and Steyer.

Washington Conservation Voters is airing an ad attacking Englund’s positions on environmental issues. It says she doesn’t prioritize climate change and highlights support she got from Chevron and Phillips 66. “We can’t trust Republican Jinyoung Englund to protect our environment when she’s supported by its biggest polluters,” the ad states.

Other ads against Dhingra have attacked her character. One accused her of shirking her work as a state prosecutor by working only 16 hours a week. In fact, she took a reduced workload to raise her children. Another ad said she was friends with “extreme” Democrats in the state, whom she’s actually never met. “I think it’s actually backfiring,” she said. “The 45th is one of the most educated in the state. I don’t think ads like that work because people see through them.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.

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