Olympia Report: Down-Ballot Challengers and Early Expenditures


The race for the state senate seat in the 10th Legislative District—think Whidbey Island and environs—figures to be one of the hottest of the year. It’s one of a handful of true swing districts in the state and one of just two with divided representation. Incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, has two Democrats for House seatmates, and a big target on his back this year. 

Still, we were a little taken aback to see an independent expenditure targeting him in April, some four months before the August primary, in a race that won’t be decided until November. New Direction PAC, which works to maintain and expand the Democratic majorities in the Legislature, has spent more than $40,000 on more than 50,000 mailers opposing the Oak Harbor Republican.

Here’s what the anti-Muzzall campaign looks like: 

The 10th, which for years was represented by thoughtful, moderate Republicans very much like Muzzall, has been trending D in recent years. Democrats flipped one of the House seats in 2020 for the military-heavy district. A Muzzall loss would accelerate a leftward shift in the Senate that’s expected even if he prevails. 

We asked why New Direction was in so early. They pointed to the early and active campaign Muzzall has been running in recent months. He’s raised $247,000 for his reelection campaign so far, and he’s already spent $192,000 on cable TV, online, and direct mail. 

Here’s a look at his messaging: 

Muzzall, who raises cattle, sheep, and hogs on the family farm, is playing up his deep Whidbey roots, while New Direction is running their highly successful playbook from 2022 when the PAC weaponized the Dobbs decision to beat back Republican challengers by emphasizing votes and stances against abortion rights. 

Muzzall defeated Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson by fewer than 1,800 votes in 2020. This time around he faces Janet St. Clair, another member of the county commission. She has raised $62,000 so far. A respectable showing in the primary would likely bring a big infusion of cash from the Senate Democratic caucus, as well as more independent spending from New Direction. The Republican caucus and allied independent groups will likely spend heavily on Muzzall’s behalf. (Paul Queary)

Republican lawmaker joins the Insurance Commissioner race 

Frontrunner state Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue) has a new challenger for insurance commissioner. Republican state Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-Auburn) entered the race officially on April 29 after losing out on the Republican Party’s endorsement for Secretary of State. 

Fortunato raised about $25,500 for that campaign, but he estimated he would have needed about $800,000 to be competitive against incumbent Democrat Steve Hobbs. It’s possible to be competitive for less in the insurance commissioner race, and Fortunato plans to transition the money, with donor approval, over to that campaign. 

Fortunato said he decided to run because the increased cost of insurance across industries impacts individuals and businesses throughout the state. Also, there was no Republican challenger to Kuderer, who aims to bring Washington closer to universal health coverage and promises to push for strong consumer protections if she were to be elected. 

“The kind of thing that moved me in this direction was political people were distressed there was nobody of consequence running as an opponent to Senator Kuderer,” Fortunato said. “There was more concern there than there was about the secretary of state.” The insurance commissioner has more power to impact Washingtonians through rulemaking, whereas the secretary of state is more beholden to the Legislative process, he said. 

Although Fortunato and Kuderer are “diametrically opposed” to one another politically, they sit together on the Senate Housing Committee, where Kuderer is chair and Fortunato is a ranking member. 

Unlike Kuderer, who wants more regulation and oversight of insurance companies to push for consumer protections and affordability, Fortunato believes more competition between insurance companies would drive down the cost for consumers. “A lack of competition drives up prices,” he said, though he isn’t suggesting abandoning regulation of insurers entirely. Fortunato said his goal as insurance commissioner would be to reduce the cost of insurance for the consumer by fostering more competition between the insurance companies.. 

Meanwhile, there is another challenger in the race, as Tony Kiepe filed his paperwork with the Public Disclosure Commission on April 24 without declaring a party affiliation. Kiepe works in the insurance industry as an agent for the UnitedHealthcare Plan as a Medicare agent, according to his personal website. He previously ran unsuccessfully for seats on the Spokane City Council in 2016 and 2019. (Sara Kassabian)

These stories first appeared in the authors’ website, The Washington Observer.

Paul Queary
Paul Queary
Paul Queary, a veteran AP reporter and editor, is founder of The Washington Observer, an independent newsletter on politics, government and the influence thereof in Washington State.


  1. Sen. Ron Muzzall is a great guy, and has often voted with Democrats on bills in the Health Committee. A couple of legislative sessions ago, he gave a powerful and emotional floor speech where he referenced his brother’s suicide. Ron is the kind of Republican we used to have a lot more of in the Legislature.

    The Democrats already have a substantial majority in both chambers of Washington’s legislature. I see no reason to go after him, especially when there are much “more important” Republicans to defeat (like Joe Kent, running again for Congress in the 3rd District).

    • Muzzall voted against the Abortion Shield Bill and the bill that freed employees from “captive audience” anti-union meetings. That’s enough to disqualify him from consideration for re-election, no matter how many Vichy Democrats think he’s a “great guy.”


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