A California billionaire has pumped $400,000 into the race for a single seat in the Washington state senate. Out-of-state businesses and political groups have poured tens of thousands into the election as well.
The money flooding into the 26th legislative district aims to influence Kitsap and Pierce County voters choosing between Republican Jan Angel of Port Orchard and Democrat Nathan Schlicher of Gig Harbor as their next state senator.
Like other local candidates, Angel and Schlicher have appeared at parades and science fairs and gone door to door. They recently debated at a Bremerton Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
“We’ve got to get government off your back so that you can retain and then create the jobs that you’re supposed to,” said Angel, a state representative and former banker and small business owner.
Nathan Schlicher, an emergency room doctor, was appointed to the senate seat in January after then-Democratic Sen. Derek Kilmer was elected to the US House of Representatives. “Should I stay in the Senate, I will remain a moderating influence. Should my opponent win, there is concern that a more radical agenda may pervade,” Schlicher said.
A coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats currently holds a delicate balance of power in the state Senate. With only one senate seat up in the air this year, this special election could trigger a political reshuffle in Olympia.
The campaigns and independent political operators throwing money into the race have turned it into the most expensive legislative race in Washington history. Schlicher and liberal groups supporting him have raised $1.1 million; Angel and conservative groups on her side have raised $970,000, according to Washington Public Disclosure Commission records.
“There’s a lot of dollars coming in from around the state, and people care about it because of that balance of power,” Schlicher said.
Money isn’t just coming from around the state, however.
The biggest donor in this race is a San Francisco billionaire named Tom Steyer. He made his money in hedge funds; he’s now devoting his time and considerable money to promoting government action against global warming.
Earlier this year, Steyer started a political action committee called the Next Gen Climate Action Committee. It has pumped money into two high-profile races: the special election that sent Massachusetts Democrat and oil-industry critic Ed Markey to the U.S. Senate in June and the current governor’s race in Virginia.
“I don’t personally know Mr. Steyer and haven’t spoken with him,” Schlicher told KUOW. “I appreciate that he believes I represent somebody who cares about the environment and has chosen to invest in that.”
In a recent candidate forum hosted by League of Women Voters of Kitsap County, Schlicher called for fighting climate change by investing in nonpolluting energy sources.
Regardless of what we individually think, the rest of the world believes that climate change is a reality. The rest of the world will be investing trillions, trillions of dollars in green technology. If we’re not investing in it and building those opportunities here in Washington state, it’s like turning away Microsoft in the 70s. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Jan Angel, by contrast, said she doubts the validity of climate science.
The climate change area, I believe, we’ve got to work through what is it we can do better? What can we do smarter? And I’m fully prepared to have those discussions and act when need be, but there’s a lot of areas right now that can’t be proven scientifically that we've had an issue. We can’t throw money at it, without scientific proof.
Virtually all scientists who study the atmosphere agree that there’s scientific proof that humans have started to change the global climate, and those changes will accelerate unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.
Jan Angel declined to be interviewed. Her campaign manager Keith Schipper said she’s focused on reaching voters directly.
Angel is the Washington state co-chair of the American Legislative Exchange Council. The conservative group known as ALEC and affiliated with the billionaire Koch brothers promotes free markets and limited government at the state level.
Angel’s bid for office has been helped by big contributions from state and national Republican Party organizations. Those political groups have in turn been funded by out-of-state businesses including tobacco, beer, insurance, paper and railroad companies.
“There’s a big difference between businesses that employ Washingtonians investing in a race that has implications on their corporation and a billionaire, retired Wall Street speculator who has a new hobby of funding obscure legislative races in a state that’s not his own,” Schipper said.
Next Gen Climate Action Committee spokesman Matt Lewis said Steyer’s political action committee is just leveling the playing field of electoral politics long influenced by coal, oil and other business interests.
“We’re going to get involved in any race where we feel we can make a difference in advancing this clean energy agenda,” Lewis said.
Of course, in any political contest, money is no guarantee of victory. Last year, Tacoma attorney Jack Connelly spent nearly $1 million of his own money trying to get elected to the state Senate.
Connelly outspent Jeannie Darneille nearly 4 to 1, but Darneille is now the state senator from the 27th district – right next to the 26th now up for grabs.