Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island and Rosemary McAuliffe of Bothell are embroiled in heated contests as spending in each has eclipsed $1 million, making them among the most expensive battles for legislative seats this year.
Haugen is dueling Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, in the 10th Legislative District and McAuliffe is facing Republican Dawn McCravey of Bothell in the 1st Legislative District.
The intensity and cost of the two races reflects the importance of the outcome.
Democrats hold a 27-22 edge in the Senate, and unseating Haugen and McAuliffe is critical to Republican chances for attaining a majority in the chamber.
While candidates are pouring plenty of money into commercials and a steady stream of mailers, the biggest chunk of cash flowing into these contests is coming from the accounts of political committees created solely for this year's elections.
"I certainly expected Republicans to take a hard look at these seats," said Michael King, executive director of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, which serves as the political arm for the caucus. "Did I expect this kind of money? Probably not."
Haugen, a Senate fixture since 1993, is dueling Bailey for a four-year term in the 10th Legislative District which encompasses all of Island County and slices of Snohomish and Skagit counties.
Bailey, in her fifth term as a state representative, won the primary with 53.2 percent of the vote, a performance exposing the incumbent's vulnerability.
There had been nearly $1.2 million spent in this contest as of Thursday with Haugen accounting for $420,461 and Bailey for $322,426.
Of the rest, $241,245 was spent by independent groups opposing Haugen and roughly $130,000 by organizations against Bailey, according to reports posted online by the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Haugen's faced hard-nosed opposition before but said this year is far worse.
Four years ago, for example, a mailer went out with her photo alongside a mug of deceased Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, a juxtaposition she decried as red baiting.
This time around, she's seen her face plastered onto Mount Rushmore and another piece showed her with her hands over her ears -- it's someone else's hands digitally manipulated onto her head. Money for those mailers came from mostly Republican Party sources.
The message is she's been in office too long and is no longer listening to her constituents.
"Everything is a lie," she said of the hit pieces arriving daily. "For me they have no ethics. How do they expect anyone to come to Olympia and work with them and have respect for them?"
The tone in this year's pile of mailings even touched a nerve for Haugen's four grown children. They sent a letter to newspapers in the district saying they found the accusations against their mother "offensive."
"We're all pretty thick-skinned. It just seems like every campaign is getting uglier and uglier," said Kathy Haugen Heitt of Camano Island. "We love our mom. We're protective of her and it seems more personal this time."
It's not all one-sided. Haugen's friends in labor unions and Democratic Party aren't bashful with their commercials and mailers including one depicting a gleeful Bailey with arms raised in a shower of money.
The message is she's accepted money from banks and drug companies and voted to protect their tax breaks and market interests.
Bailey didn't return calls seeking comment.
But state Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, chairman of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, said Haugen "can dish it out but she doesn't take it very well.
"Everybody says they're nasty. Democrats say ours are nasty. We say theirs are nasty," he said. "Compared to the rest of the country, our campaigns are basically mild-mannered."
Meanwhile, McAuliffe and Republican Dawn McCravey are competing in the 1st Legislative District, which includes Bothell, Mountlake Terrace and Kirkland in King County.
Their battle is attracting more spending by outside groups than any of the other 123 legislative races.
Through Thursday, nearly $1.1 million had been expended with the two candidates combining for just under $400,000 of the total, according to PDC records posted online.
Most of the remainder came from two groups -- Stand for Children, a Seattle-based education reform group and Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union.
McAuliffe, a staunch ally of WEA, drew the ire of education reformers earlier this year by blocking a bill to create charter schools and toning down a measure tying teacher pay to test scores of students.
As a result, Stand for Children has expended almost $257,000 against the incumbent while WEA has spent $178,000 boosting McAuliffe and $125,000 opposing McCravey.
The level of spending against McAuliffe surprised King of the Senate Democratic campaign operation because this district is perceived as a safe seat for a Democrat.
"I don't know what they're seeing," he said.
Schoesler and Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the state Republican Party, said they've seen results of polls showing it's winnable.
"We are out to win. Control of the state Senate is at stake. She is a great candidate. We are here to help," Wilbur said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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