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Originally published Monday, October 15, 2012 at 8:10 PM

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The state Senate's most interesting race: 5th District

Democrat Mark Mullet and Republican Brad Toft are locked in a state Senate campaign that has included personal attacks, unexpected endorsements and a surprising primary victory. The Eastside seat launched Dino Rossi's political career, but can the Republicans hold onto it?

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Like most David Spring supporters, Seattle moderate 07 is way out of touch. ... MORE
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Accusations of lying, push-polling and "disreputable behavior." A key cross-party endorsement. A surprise primary victory. And the Republican Party's hopes of gaining some control in the Legislature.

It's no wonder the 5th District Senate race is widely considered the state's nastiest yet most important legislative campaign of the year.

If the Republicans have any hope of gaining a majority in the Senate, they almost certainly must win here, in an Eastside district that launched the political career of Republican Dino Rossi two decades ago.

But it was Democrat Mark Mullet, an Issaquah City Council member, who took the August primary and got the endorsement of the last person to hold the seat, former Republican state Sen. Cheryl Pflug.

Pflug kick-started the intrigue by resigning to take a state government job just days after the filing deadline — leaving her party with the inexperienced Brad Toft as its only candidate — and then publicly unearthing a history of legal cases in Toft's past.

That helped Mullet win the primary. But the race has taken several turns since, and both parties have dumped tens of thousands of dollars into the campaign.

Differing styles

If it weren't for everything else, the race would be notable for the stylistic differences between the candidates, which were on display on a recent afternoon of doorbelling.

Toft ran between houses, his daughter in tow. Dressed in gray exercise pants and a white, long-sleeved "Brad Toft for Senate" shirt, the 39-year-old financial-services manager outlined his policy positions to whoever answered the door, closing with, "Can I count on your vote in November?"

Mullet looked more formal in a light blue, button-down shirt tucked into dark bluejeans, although he acted more laid back. He handed out a flier listing his positions, but he preferred to talk about kids, pets or the Seahawks. He closed with a coupon for free ice cream at the local Ben & Jerry's, which the 40-year-old owns, along with a Zeeks Pizza.

Each man is hoping he'll appeal to the voters of the 5th, which stretches from Issaquah to Snoqualmie Pass, dipping south past Maple Valley and north almost to Highway 2.

It is suburbia, with a conservative tilt and an independent streak — Rossi's predecessor was Democrat Kathleen Drew, now running for secretary of state, and his successor, Pflug, was one of four Republicans to vote for gay marriage last session.

Mullet says he's the perfect fit: a fiscal conservative and social liberal.

He emphasizes his experience as a small-business owner and a former Bank of America executive. While he is personally opposed to the law that requires a two-thirds vote by lawmakers to raise taxes, he says he would not fight it in the Legislature.

At the same time, Mullet was the first state resident to own a Tesla Roadster, a high-end electric sports car. He believes humans are causing global warming, and supports gay marriage and abortion rights.

Toft isn't discussing social issues on the trail, but has acknowledged he opposes gay marriage. He said he favors civil unions instead.

He wants to increase education funding and says he's open to a tax package to pay for transportation improvements. He stresses he isn't tied to party leadership, noting his challenge to Pflug in the primary before she dropped out.

He is also a strong supporter of the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases. He wants to repeal some regulations and create more exceptions to the business-and-occupation tax to spur growth.

"Pfluged"

The race is about more than the issues, however.

Mullet, in particular, has made character part of the campaign.

He points to the 22 legal cases in Toft's past — civil lawsuits, speeding tickets and charges of driving with a suspended license, almost all of which occurred in the 1990s.

He says that Toft has misled voters by falsely saying Mullet wants to impose an income tax.

And his campaign has noted that Toft's website exaggerated Toft's educational history, framing a three-day certificate program at the University of Washington as an "executive degree in finance." The website has since been changed.

Most troubling, Mullet says, is a letter Toft sent in March, asking a judge to seal records of one of the suits.

Toft suggested to the judge that he was not the defendant named in the case, even though he was. In the suit, College Pro Painters claimed Toft failed to pay the company $10,000 he owed as a franchisee.

Toft has offered differing explanations for the letter, but now says he couldn't remember the suit and was seeking more information. He called Mullet's attacks a "desperate distraction."

Last week, he fired back by accusing Mullet of using push polling to tarnish him. Mullet says his campaign had nothing to do with the poll, which asked voters if they'd be less likely to support Toft if they knew about the letter to the judge.

Toft, meanwhile, accuses Pflug, the former senator, of striking a deal with Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire: In return for the $92,500-a-year Washington Growth Management Hearings Board job, Pflug would resign, endorse Mullet and send out a news release accusing Toft of a history of "egregious and disreputable behavior."

Republican leaders like to say they got "Pfluged."

The real egregious behavior, Toft says, was the way Pflug resigned.

Both Pflug and Gregoire have said no such deal existed.

Tight race

One reason GOP leaders are so upset is that Pflug's departure may have imperiled their chances of winning control of the state Senate.

To get a majority, Republicans would need to hold all of their seats — including the 5th — and take three from the Democrats.

"You might say this is the linchpin that could assure us the majority," said Kirby Wilbur, chair of the state Republican Party. "We've got to keep it."

Wilbur said he is confident because Mullet is "way too liberal for the district," pointing to his opposition to the two-thirds requirement and his vote on the Issaquah City Council to ban plastic grocery bags.

However, Mullet took 52 percent in the primary to Toft's 48 percent.

Mullet has a small edge in money, too, with nearly $239,000 raised, including some $65,000 from his party, according to campaign-finance reports. Toft has raised about $232,000, including more than $110,000 from the party.

If he does win, Mullet says he'll try to stay in the Senate until his youngest daughter, who's 2, graduates from high school. If he loses, he'll run again in four years.

Likewise, Toft said he doesn't want a full-time political job while his young children are in school.

And if he loses?

"I expect to win," Toft said. "I'm not planning on anything else."

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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