If Republicans pick up three additional seats in the November elections, they'll snag control of the chamber for the first time since 2004.
And GOP leaders consider two of their best chances lie in knocking off long-tenured Democratic Sens. Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island and Rosemary McAuliffe of Bothell.
"I'm optimistic. I think it'll go this year," said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.
Even if they come up short in their aspirations, Republicans will continue to command a philosophical majority in the Senate when it comes to issues of state spending and government reform, he said.
"Regardless of what happens, I think you're going to see much of the same dynamic we had last year," Hewitt said.
Not surprisingly, Democratic leaders don't see Republicans ousting two of their stalwart members and achieving a Senate takeover. Rather, they predict a larger and more philosophically cohesive Democratic caucus will emerge when the dust of this November's election settles.
"It is a presidential year, which means Washington state (voters) will tilt a little more blue," said veteran Democratic consultant Christian Sinderman of Seattle. "Rumors of a full-scale upheaval in the legislative chambers are over-exaggerated."
Senate Democrats now outnumber Republicans by a 27-22 margin. However, there are several moderate and conservative Democrats in the caucus, some of whom routinely side with Republicans on budget and reform bills.
It happened in March when Democratic Sens. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, Rodney Tom of Medina and Jim Kastama of Puyallup joined the 22 Republicans to pass a GOP-crafted budget plus bills to reduce retirement benefits for future state workers, revise health insurance policies for public school workers and rewrite the rules for budgeting.
That vote effectively paralyzed the Legislature as the Senate couldn't get its budget through a Democrat-controlled House.
The stalemate pushed lawmakers into a special session that lasted 31 days, ending after an all-nighter in which most senators backed a budget designed by Democrats and those reform measures sought by Republicans.
Candidate filing ended Friday, giving Republican and Democratic leaders a chance to take the measure of the electoral map to see where each party may gain or lose seats.
Republicans are confident they will pick up the seat of Kastama, who is forgoing re-election to run for Secretary of State. Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, a popular two-term lawmaker, is seeking the position, and even Democratic leaders concede he's the heavy favorite to win.
Haugen and McAuliffe are the other prime targets of the Senate Republican caucus, though they will be tough to unseat. Both got elected to the Senate in 1992 and been re-elected four times.
"Both of those races will be close," Sinderman said. "Those two women are well-established, hard working incumbents who know their communities very well and have survived worse partisan battles."
Haugen is up against state Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, in the 10th Legislative District, which includes all of Island County and parts of Snohomish and Skagit counties.
It's pretty evenly split among Democratic and Republican voters. As a result, Haugen has had some tight races. In 2008, she won with 53.6 percent of the vote while in 2004 she garnered just 50.3 percent.
Bailey, a five-term representative, is an experienced fundraiser and campaigner, buoying the hopes of her party.
Hewitt said the polling is "very good" and redistricting pushed the partisan needle a bit more toward the GOP. He expects a costly no-holds-barred contest.
Democrats do, too.
"We are committed to holding that seat," said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, one of the leaders of the Senate Democratic caucus political operation. "That is a critical seat for us to hold."
On paper, McAuliffe appears less vulnerable in the 1st Legislative District, which includes Bothell, Mountlake Terrace and Kirkland.
Its voters historically favor Democrats in most major elections. An analysis of the 2008 races for governor and president and the 2010 U.S. Senate contest found 54 percent of votes were cast for Democrats.
Republicans offer a different analysis. They note that Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna won re-election handily in the district in 2008 and his presence on the ballot this year will be a boost.
And, McAuliffe is facing two opponents -- Guy Palumbo, a Democratic businessman who's raised more money than her to this point, and Dawn McCravey, a Republican who serves on the Northshore School Board.
McCravey, an education reform advocate, won a second term on the school board last November. She beat a candidate backed by the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union, which views McAuliffe as its backstop to unwanted changes in public education such as charter schools.
"She knows how to campaign and the community is behind her," Hewitt said.
Frockt said it will be a vigorous race but expects McAuliffe to emerge the victor.
While Republicans are looking to grab three seats, Democrats think they have a shot at knocking out a couple of Republican incumbents.
One of their prime targets is in the 17th Legislative District in southwest Washington, where Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, is taking on Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, a conservative stalwart of the GOP.
"Don Benton is one of the most divisive Tea Party figures. We feel pretty good about that seat," said Michael King, executive director of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.
Hewitt isn't outwardly concerned. "Nobody is better at campaigning than Don."
If Probst pulls off the upset, Democrats are counting on him to be more loyal to the caucus agenda in 2013 than Kastama this year.
November is a ways away. While strategists in both parties are touting the talents of their candidates, they said they won't be surprised if the philosophical division seen in 2012 carries over another year.
"Republicans will have ideological control of the Senate," predicted Alex Hays, executive director of Mainstream Republicans of Washington. "What is yet to be seen is whether they have an outright majority."
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com.
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