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Sunday, October 31, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Race may tip control of Senate
By Andrew Garber
VANCOUVER, Wash. State Sen. Don Carlson is an oddity in his party, a Republican in a largely Democratic district.
The unusual status makes some Republicans nervous. It puts Carlson, an affable, retired high-school teacher, at the epicenter of a Democratic push to regain control of the state Senate, where the GOP has held a one-seat majority since 2002.
"A lot of folks are more anxious over the 49th ... because it's such a tough district," said Brett Bader, a Republican consultant. "The Democrats and their allies are convinced that a victory there gives them the whole Senate."
While both parties say they're poised to seize power in the Legislature on Tuesday, many observers expect the fight to boil down to whether Republicans can keep their majority in the Senate, given the Democrats' more comfortable six-seat majority in the House.
The parties prize control of the Legislature about as much as they do control of the governor's office. Legislative control lets their leadership decide who will chair committees and what laws to propose or to kill, and provides tremendous sway over how tax dollars are spent.
The parties have targeted a number of races this year. Competitive Senate contests include those in the 6th District in Spokane, where Democrat Laurie Dolan and Republican state Rep. Brad Benson are running for an open seat, and the 25th District, where Democratic Sen. Jim Kastama of Puyallup is being challenged by GOP candidate Rose Hill.
Few matches, however, garner the same level of attention as the Senate race in Vancouver, where Carlson is being challenged by second-term Clark County Commissioner Craig Pridemore.
Big push in 49th
The Democratic Party is making a strong push in that district, pouring resources and people into an area that's effectively a suburb of Portland. The nightly local news is beamed in from Oregon, not the Puget Sound region.
The party and its supporters have brought in campaign workers by the busload to knock on doors for Pridemore, who estimates volunteers have gone to more than 16,000 homes in the district.
Money is flowing into his campaign as well. So far, Pridemore has raised about $143,000, more than double the amount raised by Carlson's Democratic opponent in 2000. In addition, the Service Employees International Union has spent almost $200,000 supporting a mix of candidates, including Pridemore. Records do not break down how much the union spent on each candidate.
Carlson has raised even more money, roughly $197,000, according to the latest state filings. In addition, the Realtors Quality of Life political-action committee has spent more than $300,000 on a mix of candidates, including Carlson.
On the surface, Carlson doesn't seem like a ripe target for Democrats. The former volleyball coach has been elected five times in the district, winning a seat in the House in 1992 and moving to the Senate in 2000. He's chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee and a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He's widely viewed as a moderate.
Republicans, although concerned about the race, say Carlson is the party's best shot at keeping the seat. He's considered a strong campaigner. Carlson notes he's knocked on more than 32,000 doors this election.
His vulnerability comes from the district's makeup. In the September primary, Pridemore got more than 60 percent of the vote.
It was the first time in 70 years that voters were banned from voting for any primary candidate they wanted. Instead, they had to pick one party for the ballot. The vote reflects the fact the district is largely Democratic. In addition, both state House members in the district are Democrats.
Carlson also acknowledges that he's always had relatively close races. On average, he's won with 55 percent of the vote.
Pridemore looked at the numbers and saw his chance.
"I like Senator Carlson. He's been good state senator," Pridemore told a group of senior citizens at a candidate forum last week. "I would like you to understand I would be a better state senator."
Pridemore, 43, is tall, athletic looking, and has a commanding presence. At the forum with Carlson, he cast aside a microphone intended to help the retirement-home residents hear him and spoke in a loud, booming voice instead.
He argued that Carlson, because he's a Republican in a Democratic district, is hamstrung in terms of what he can say and do in Olympia. "He has to recognize that if he's not careful what things he pursues, that Republican caucus will turn on him and cost him his ability to stand up and say what he really believes."
Pridemore says he'll be a more outspoken, independent advocate for the district.
Carlson, by comparison, at age 65 is a soft-spoken, grandfatherly figure. He used the microphone and spoke in measured tones about the needs of senior citizens and how he'd work to help them.
In an interview afterward, he dismissed Pridemore as a party ideologue. "If they want a moderate, they're going to vote for me," he said, noting "I would not be state senator if Democrats did not come over and vote for me."
Ruth Nelson, 72, watched the men at the forum and said she planned to vote for Carlson. "He's not as domineering and outspoken as Craig was."
Jean Ennenge, an 80-year-old retiree who sat next to Nelson, said she's already voted for Pridemore. "I've known Don for years, but I voted for Pridemore because I want a Democratic Legislature."
Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt predicts that sentiment will put his party in control on Tuesday.
"We're going after 30 legislative seats statewide," he said. "I believe we're going to sweep a lot of Democrats into office."
Not true, said Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance. "If things break our way, we can increase seats in the Senate and take control of the House."
Whoever is right gets the spoils, which includes a limping economy, high unemployment and a projected budget shortfall next year of more than $1 billion.
For now, the parties are focused on Tuesday.
Carlson said he's not letting the pressure get to him. "The party is more anxious than I am," he said. "You know what? There is life after the Legislature."
Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
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