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August 7, 2014 at 12:33 PM

Will a red result in Washington Senate primaries keep Tom Steyer from spending?

San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, founder of NextGen Climate Action.

San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, founder of NextGen Climate Action.

There’s been plenty of talk about the role free-spending California billionaire Tom Steyer might play in Washington’s upcoming legislative races — the man whose wallet might make all the difference. But if the results of the Aug. 5 primary tell us anything, it is that his money might go further somewhere else.

The largely-Republican Senate Majority Coalition Caucus seems to be in firm-enough control of the upper chamber that it will not be easy to dislodge. If results hold firm through late ballot counts and the November election, its numbers will remain steady next session at 26-23.

Democratic partisans will disagree that there is anything good about it, but the coalition certainly is a big deal. The Washington Senate is the only legislative body in the blue West Coast states where Republicans have a toehold, and its effect has been to steer Washington’s environmental policy down the middle while Oregon and California veer left. Steyer, a retired former hedge-fund manager with money to burn and a passion for climate-change legislation, offered plenty of hints before the primary that he might spend big in this state to change the chamber’s color.

Last year Steyer worked with the League of Conservation Voters to spend more than a half-million dollars on Washington races. There is plenty more where that came from — he has vowed to spend $100 million on races nationally.  And in Washington state specifically, he filed papers July 5 to form a new political action committee, NextGen Climate Action, which has just $100 in the bank but could be a vehicle for political contributions. And The New York Times reported Monday that Steyer discussed Senate-takeover strategy during a lunch with Gov. Jay Inslee at the governor’s mansion. Here’s an excerpt from the Times report:

Mr. Steyer’s strategy is to spend heavily this fall to help defeat sitting lawmakers who oppose Mr. Inslee’s agenda and pave the way for the governor to move his policies through next year — an example, his critics say, of the insidious influence of big money from outsiders that makes local elections less local.

Here’s the trouble. Steyer may have the money and the inclination. But primary-election night results don’t indicate much chance of success. Money can do wonders in politics, but it would take quite a reversal to change control.

The narrowest head-to-head matchup in a key race appears to be Democrat Matt Isenhower’s Eastside challenge to Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, in the 45th Legislative District. Hill is leading by a comfortable margin, 54 percent to 46 percent.

In the 28th District, in the south Tacoma suburbs, Republican incumbent Steve O’Ban was ahead of Democrat Tami Green, both of University Place, 56 percent to 44 percent. For Federal Way’s open 30th  District seat, Republican Mark Miloscia was beating Democrat Shari Song, 57 percent to 43 percent. And that pickup would offset a likely Democratic gain in the 48th, where Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, is stepping down and Democratic state Rep. Cyrus Habib has 63 percent of the vote so far.

State Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

State Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

Strangest race of the bunch was that of state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, in the 35th Legislative District. Sheldon crossed party lines with Tom to create the coalition nearly two years ago. In his first election since, Sheldon was challenged from the left by Democrat Irene Bowling, and from the right by Republican Travis Coutoure. As of the latest ballot count, Democrat Bowling has the most votes, 35 percent, a sign that Democrats managed to turn out a big vote against a politician they regard as a turncoat. But Sheldon appears to have squeaked through the primary with 33 percent, beating Coutoure by nearly 400 votes in the election night tally. “It’s a little hard when you are neither fish nor fowl,” Sheldon says – especially when a squeeze play seems to be at work.

Plenty of Republicans lined up for Sheldon, including all 24 Republican senators, and business interests and others rallied to his support with $161,000. In an email circulating through GOP ranks, apparently from Coutoure, the furious candidate accuses the state Republican Party of “failing to acknowledge my existence.” Coutoure could not be reached. Presuming the percentages hold, Coutoure will be out, and it appears reasonable to add his 31 percent to Sheldon’s 33 percent, for a conservative vote that will put Sheldon well over the top come November.

It’s up to Steyer to decide where he wants to put his millions, and whether it matters how much he spends. But if return on investment is his issue, other states may offer easier gains.

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