Local Democrats cannot wait for the November 2006 election. The Republicans' national problems—the war in Iraq, the spying on American citizens, the scandals involving the White House and GOP's Congressional leadership—are fueling the sense among locals that '06 is going to be a good year for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.
Usually midterm elections are tough on incumbent presidents, particularly unpopular ones, and voters often don't make distinctions between candidates for local or national office. "I've been meeting with more candidates in December than I ever have before," says Democratic political consultant Christian Sinderman. Moxie Media's John Wyble, another Democratic consultant, agrees, "Everybody is gearing up. You are getting good quality candidates who are starting really early."
A key local battle will be for control of the state Senate. Currently, Democrats hold a 26-23 seat majority, but that is undercut by conservative Democrats who often vote with the Republicans. In 2006, only half of the state Senators face re- election. Of those, Republicans admit that they have more vulnerable incumbents and open seats in swing districts than the Democrats. "There aren't a lot of seats that the Republicans can go after," says GOP political consultant Dave Mortenson.
Senate races likely to draw the most attention will be in the Seattle suburbs. On the Eastside, two of the state's new generation of GOP leaders—state Senators Bill Finkbeiner and Luke Esser—already have serious potential challengers.
Finkbeiner, who represents the 45th District that includes Kirkland and Carnation, characterizes himself as a moderate Republican. The former Democrat cites his recent votes in favor of stem-cell research and raising the gas tax for transportation. He stepped down as the leader of the state Senate's Republicans earlier this month. In that role, he was often sharply partisan in his attacks on issues like the disputed election of Gov. Christine Gregoire. He says he left the leadership post because of the demands of a busy life. Democrats say he left his post because as leader of his caucus he had to vote more conservatively than his district on key issues like gay rights. Democratic consultant Wyble says, Republicans "get nervous. They've been losing these swing districts." Finkbeiner angrily dismisses the idea that he is worried about his re-election. "There's a conspiracy behind every corner," he says.
Democrat Eric Oemig is on the verge of starting to campaign against Finkbeiner. A former Microsoft engineer, he hosts the cable-access show Moral Politics and runs a Web site, www.findpurity.com, about food allergies. He is very concerned about electronic voting. "Look at how those voting machines have skewed those voting patterns; it looks like tampering," he says. He is closely following the lawsuit against the use of electronic voting machines in Snohomish County. While Oemig has qualities that could make him a good candidate—he's articulate, wealthy, and passionate about politics—his issues and political profile seem like a better fit for Seattle than the Eastside. How they will play in this shifting suburban area, parts of which are now more blue than red, will be fascinating to watch.
Over in the 48th district that includes parts of Bellevue and Redmond, Esser has already pondered contacting voters in December. "It's too early to start door-belling. It's too soon after the last election," he says. That Esser would even consider the idea illustrates his dedication to retail politics. Esser is more conservative than Finkbeiner. He voted against last year's transportation package citing his long-standing commitment to voter approval of tax increases. He wants, however, more new taxes for transportation—he's pushing hard for a joint highway and transit ballot measure for 2006. "We have momentum on transportation, we ought to move ahead," he says. As a practicing Catholic, he is staunchly pro-life and opposed to gay rights. In 2004, he highlighted his conservative views while seeking the Republican Congressional nomination against U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn. His conservative profile is something the Democrats hope to exploit.
Also in 2004, educator Debi Golden ran for the state House of Representatives as a Democrat against the 45th District's incumbent moderate Republican Rodney Tom. Despite starting late, and raising relatively little money, Golden ran surprisingly well in the district getting over 48 percent of the vote. She has been bitten by the political bug and is eager to run again. As a former teacher who now works as a curriculum and course designer for Bellevue Community College, Golden plans to highlight education funding if she takes on Esser. "Luke has voted against several important education funding measures," she claims. She is a big supporter of fully funding smaller class sizes as mandated by the passage of Initiative 728 four years ago. She also feels that Esser is out of step with the district because he is unsupportive of mass transit and gay rights. Golden dismisses Esser's advantage of name recognition from representing the district since 1998. "I have name recognition too. Golden is a great last name. People are coming up to me in the supermarket and the coffee shop saying, 'Didn't you run for office?'"
At least one Democratic mastermind reminds everyone that the current favorable political conditions could all change in a year. State House Speaker Frank Chopp has helped his party pick up sixteen House seats in the last six years. He notes that one year ago President George W. Bush had just been re-elected and was riding high in the polls. Says Chopp, "It could all turn around again."