It should be a sleepy special election for a state Senate seat in the Seattle suburbs.
But instead this Tuesday’s contest between two first-time political candidates, both women and both children of immigrants, is shattering previous state spending records and is drawing six-figure checks from donors around the country.
At stake is control of the Washington state Senate where the GOP holds a one-seat majority. It’s currently the only Republican-held legislative chamber on the West Coast.
If the Democratic candidate Manka Dhingra wins, Washington state’s government would be fully controlled by Democrats. Democrats currently control the governorships and state legislature in six states, compared to 26 held by Republicans. The race is also another test of Democratic grassroots enthusiasm during the Trump presidency. In 2017, Democrats have flipped eight state legislative seats from Republican control in special elections like this one.
With full control of Washington state, Democrats argue the West Coast states could take an ever more aggressive lead in opposing Trump administration policies, especially around regional efforts to tackle climate change. That’s one reason this special election has drawn so much money and attention from out-of-state interests.
Democrats are doing their best to link Republican candidate Jinyoung Englund to President Trump. The district is filled with prosperous, well-educated voters and includes parts of Redmond where Microsoft is headquartered. Hillary Clinton carried the district in 2016.
Englund describes herself an entrepreneur and vows to oppose new state taxes. She once worked for the state’s influential Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
Meanwhile, Republicans are casting Dhingra, who’s a prosecutor supervising special courts for veterans and the mentally ill, as a sinister ally of Seattle’s beyond-progressive politics. In one attack ad, actors impersonating liberal Seattle “types” (including a cyclist who exclaims “F— the cars!”) express glowing support of the Democrat and sneer at suburban “soccer moms.”
During a debate sponsored by the local Fox affiliate last month, Englund argued keeping the seat in Republican hands was the only thing preventing a carbon tax and a state capital gains tax. “When I go door to door, the issues that people talk to me about are feeling overburdened by taxes .”
But Democrats say the Republican-controlled Senate has blocked popular legislation on climate change, voting rights and gun regulations.
Dhingra noted in the debate that in 2016, Washington voters overwhelmingly passed an initiative to allow families to seek removal of guns from people in crisis.
“Because our legislators are unable to act. And what we have the opportunity to do — it’s only one vote — is change the fact that we’re not governing,” Dhingra said.
At least $6 million has poured into the race, with billionaire donors like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and climate activist Tom Steyer making six-figure donations to Dhingra and her allies.
Republican donors from around the country are also going all-out. The Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Council, whose top contributor is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has given $450,000 to a PAC run by the Washington Senate Republican Caucus. The oil company Phillips 66 has also donated $350,000 to a PAC that supports Englund.
One big issue in the race has been the county’s initiative to open “supervised drug consumption sites” where people can consume heroin and other drugs under medical supervision. A task force of experts proposed the sites as one step in dealing with the opioid crisis.
Englund calls for a statewide ban on the sites. Several suburban cities have enacted their own bans. Dhingra would allow the consumption sites if communities are willing to host them. Dhingra also supports a capital gains tax to fund education.