A pre-holiday political money roundup
Legislative fundraising heats up, new anti-Sawant PAC seeks to raise unlimited $$$
As we head into the holiday weekend, let’s take a look at the political money flowing in Olympia and elsewhere. It’s just a couple of weeks before the annual freeze on raising money comes down on members of the Legislature, and last week was Committee Week at the mostly virtual Capitol, traditionally a period of intense check-writing.
Candidates for the House and Senate have already raised about $3.4 million ahead of next year’s campaign. So far, most of that is concentrated in a few hot races for swing seats. The top money-raiser was now-former Sen. Steve Hobbs, the Snohomish County moderate that Gov. Jay Inslee so deftly stashed away in the Secretary of State’s office so his seat could fall to a more compliant progressive. Hobbs, who was chair of the powerful Transportation Committee, had raised nearly $300K to defend the traditionally swing 44th District. He can repurpose that money to defend the sweet corner office in the capitol in next year’s special election for the final two years of Kim Wyman’s term.
Close behind Hobbs is Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, who won the 45th District in a special election in 2017 after the death of Republican Andy Hill, delivering the majority for the Democrats. Dhingra defended the seat fairly easily in the Democratic wave year of 2018 but could face a tough challenge next year in what looks like a big year for Republicans. Looks like the smart money is betting on the incumbent, though. She has raised about $217,000, including maximum donations from players including the left-leaning union SEIU 775, Microsoft, and drug conglomerate Bristol-Myers Squibb.
In third is conservative Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, who is gearing up to challenge first-term Democratic Sen. Emily Randall in Kitsap County’s 26th District, which currently stretches from Gig Harbor north to take in part of Bremerton. Young has had the strongest November of any legislative candidate, pulling in more than $18,000. Because he’s challenging an incumbent, most of the money came from individual donors close to home instead of Olympia insiders. Young has raised more than $175K, including $50K from the Kitsap County Republican Party. Randall, one of the most progressive members of the Legislature, has raised about $84K so far, with support from labor unions and Native American tribes.
Here’s why you should care about this. The complex fundraising game will ultimately help determine whether Democrats keep control of the Legislature or surrender one or both chambers to Republicans in what looks like a red wave year. In the 2020 cycle, candidates for the Legislature raised and spent nearly $33 million overall, although that figure is somewhat inflated because much of the money gets counted twice via the surplus-funds shuffle, a legal money-laundering scheme we’ll get back to in a minute. Almost none of that money came from average folks.
The meltdown of the Washington State Redistricting Commission last week adds significant uncertainty to many of these races. Because the commission punted the task of drawing new district lines to the Washington Supreme Court, lawmakers may not know which districts they’re running in until shortly before the filing deadline next spring.
Another first-term Democrat, Sen. Mona Das of Kent, has raised about $105K so far to defend her seat in the 47th District in South King County. Das took that seat in 2018 in a close race with then-Sen. Joe Fain, one of the Republican members of the redistricting commission. In the legally non-binding map the commission sent to the Supremes, the 47th is subtly redrawn to favor a GOP challenger to Das. Such a challenger has not yet emerged.
Also on the fundraising leaderboard is Republican Rep. Jeremie Dufault of Selah, in the Yakima-area 15th District. That region, where the Latino vote has traditionally been split between districts, was the subject of intense scrutiny in the redistricting process as Democrats pushed for a majority-minority district. Dufault may find himself in significantly less friendly territory next November.
Back to the surplus shuffle: Powerful lawmakers in safe seats, especially leaders of the Legislature, raise money from lobbyists, corporations, unions, Native American tribes, and other players, and then channel promising challengers and vulnerable incumbents in a handful of close races. For example, the top money-raiser last year was Democratic T’wina Nobles, who beat Republican incumbent Steve O’Ban with a campaign worth nearly $1 million. More than $150K of that came from money raised by other lawmakers.
So far, the big players in the shuffling game haven’t raised that much. Only House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, stands out with about $82K raised. (He raised $353K for 2020.) But it’s still early. Look for more checks to flow in the next couple of weeks.
A new anti-Sawant committee flexes its wallet in Seattle
A new committee pushing for the recall of Kshama Sawant, Seattle’s firebrand socialist city council member, has raised $123,000 in a month under the tight contribution limit for recall committees, and they’re looking for permission to give far more.
So far, nearly 100 donors have kicked in $1,000 apiece to A Better Seattle, an independent committee created on Oct. 22. Many folks and organizations on that list of donors, which reads like a who’s-who of the Seattle establishment, could afford to give much more. Many of them did in fact give more to PACs that helped defeat abolitionists Nicole Thomas-Kennedy and Nikkita Oliver in their bids for city attorney and city council. Many of the same folks were big donors to Bruce Harrell for Seattle’s Future, which helped propel Harrell to a lopsided win.
We’re told that A Better Seattle grew out of the momentum from those campaigns, which were mostly the city’s monied class pushing back against an increasingly polarized left. Now they hope to pull the sharpest thorn from the establishment’s side by ousting Sawant.
The Public Disclosure Commission is holding a special meeting today to take up the committee’s argument that it should be exempt from the $1,000 limit because it’s independent of Recall Sawant, the campaign that got the recall on the ballot. Both state and federal law allows such independent campaigns without limits. If the PDC agrees, those four-figure checks could grow to five and six figures.
That could be significant because the recall campaign is only happening in Seattle’s District 3, which is roughly a seventh of the city, including Capitol Hill and the wealthy lakeside neighborhoods stretching from Montlake to Mount Baker. An aggressive, well-funded campaign to turn out the anti-Sawant vote could well carry the day it what promises to be a very low-turnout election, with ballots due on Dec. 7.
Recall Sawant has raised $768K thus far, while Kshama Solidarity, the campaign to defend Sawant, has raised $913K, both under the $1,000 contribution limit. But most of that money is spent; neither side is sitting on a huge war chest for the final push.
Sawant was first elected citywide in 2013. She won the newly created District 3 in 2015 and was reelected in 2019. The recall stems from three incidents: she is charged with using city resources to support a proposed ballot initiative to tax Amazon, with disregarding state COVID-19 orders by opening City Hall to hundreds of protesters during racial justice protests 2020, and with leading a protest march to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s house. Durkan’s address is confidential because of her past work as a federal prosecutor.
Thank you for your attention. The Washington Observer is an independent newsletter on politics, government, and the influence thereof in Washington State. If you’re not already a paid subscriber, go ahead and hit the button to get access to The Sunday Observer and the warm glow of supporting independent journalism.