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Democrats take control of Washington State Senate

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 8, 2017, 9:31 a.m.

Democrat Manka Dhingra elected to the state Senate in suburban King County’s 45th Legislative District. (Elaine Thompson / Associatied Press)
Democrat Manka Dhingra elected to the state Senate in suburban King County’s 45th Legislative District. (Elaine Thompson / Associatied Press)

For the first time since 2012, Democrats will retake control of the state Senate next month on the strength of a big win in suburban King County, a victory that solidifies the Blue Wall of a democratically controlled West Coast – Washington, Oregon and California.

In a race that set Washington records for spending on a legislative race, Deputy County Prosecutor Manka Dhingra beat Jinyoung Lee Englund, a businesswoman and former aide to U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Dhingra’s win gives Washington Democrats control of the Governor’s mansion and both state legislative bodies for the next year, potentially pushing a more progressive agenda in 2018.

In votes counted on Election Night, Dhingra was collecting 55.4 percent of the vote to Englund’s 44.6 percent.

Republicans currently control the Senate with a coalition that gives them a one-vote majority. Although five seats were up in this off-year election, the other four were in “safe” districts that didn’t result in a candidate from another party pulling off an upset.

The switch will occur officially in December when the results of the election are certified. But Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, who is expected to become Deputy Majority Leader from his current position of Deputy Minority Leader, said Democrats will work on their reorganization early next week during committee days in Olympia.

“The first thing we do is to set an agenda that puts Washington families first,” Billig said. As part of that, they will figure out a strategy “to pass the biggest jobs bill to ever come out of Olympia – the Capital Budget,” he added.

Along with that construction budget, they will work on a way to address a state Supreme Court ruling on water rights that is stifling construction in some rural and suburban areas, he said.

In Northeast Washington’s 7th District, Republican Shelly Short, who moved from the House to the Senate through an appointment to fill an empty seat early this year, easily bested Democrat Karen Hardy. She’ll be in the minority for the next session, but that’s not an unfamiliar position; she was in the minority during her entire time in the House.

“The numbers are so close (Democrats) are not going to be able to move things without working with us,” Short said. “For me, personally, I’m going to continue to forge those relationships. You have to work with who the voters give you.

Jacquelin Maycumber, of Republic, Short’s legislative assistant who was appointed to her House seat, beat Democrat Susan Swanson, of Omak.

The 7th is such a Republican stronghold that even though Short was first elected to the Legislature in 2008, this was her first election facing a Democratic opponent. Maycumber, Hardy and Swanson were all making their first legislative runs.

Maycumber said Republicans will return to Olympia looking to fight off any attempts at tax increases, whether an income tax, a carbon tax or a tax on the miles a vehicle travels.

“We’re going to be coming out strong and telling them the people back home are having problems,” Maycumber said.

Hardy and Swanson both had backing from the state Democratic Party, part of new state Chairwoman Tina Podlodowski’s pledge to “contest every race in every place.” But the big money, from political parties, political action committees, big business and big labor, went to the race between Dhingra and Englund.

Suburban King County’s 45th District is, at best, a swing district.

It has two Democrats in the state House, but Republican Andy Hill won the Senate seat in 2010 and successfully defended it in 2014. The fiscal conservative rose to the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee and became the Senate Republican’s go-to guy on all budget matters. After he died last year of cancer, former Sen. Dino Rossi of Issaquah, another budget expert, was appointed to the seat but did not run for the election. Rossi recently announced he will run for the U.S. House of Representatives.

That set up a showdown between Dhingra and Englund, two first-time candidates in a district that includes Redmond, Woodinville and other suburban communities that have expanded with the state’s burgeoning tech sector and some parts that are still rural.

Each candidate’s campaign raised about $1.5 million in contributions, according to the latest reports from the Public Disclosure Commission. But that was dwarfed by the independent expenditures from political parties and interest groups which totaled about $6 million in spending for and against the candidates.

Groups supporting Englund tried to paint Dhingra as more in touch with the city of Seattle than suburban King County, at one point caricaturing city residents in a commercial that had one person in a Dhingra T-shirt standing in front of the statute of Vladimir Lenin in Fremont. Among Dhingra’s campaign themes was that electing Englund would continue the pattern of overtime legislative sessions of recent years, and the gridlock that kept lawmakers from passing a $4 billion Capital Budget despite going through three overtime sessions.

An hour after the 8 p.m. deadline for ballots to be in, Gov. Jay Inslee was congratulating Dhingra and looking ahead. It will be the first time Democrats controlled both chambers since he became governor in 2013.

“We’ve had good bipartisan successes in Olympia over the past few years and that will continue,” Inslee said in a press release. “I also look forward to action on some issues that have stalled too long.”