For the past four years, Republicans have held all three state seats in the district representing north Bellingham, rural Whatcom County and the small cities. In 2012, the two Republican incumbents to the state House won by comfortable margins.
Although Legislative District 42 has been a Republican stronghold, a prominent Whatcom County party member seeking House Position 1 said not to expect a Republican sweep in the Aug. 5 primary, which drew four candidates after the retirement of Rep. Jason Overstreet, R-Lynden.
"There have been some that have posited that theory. ... I've crunched the numbers, and I don't see that happening," said Luanne Van Werven, who has been involved in elections for 25 years.
Van Werven, a former Whatcom County Republican Party chairwoman, is running alongside fellow Republican Bill Knutzen, a former County Council member; and two political newcomers: Democrat Satpal Sidhu and Libertarian Nick Kunkel.
The top two vote-getters in the primary will face off in the Nov. 4 general election.
Republicans may have an edge in name recognition - Knutzen is the only one among the four who has held elected office - but that won't get anyone a win in the primary, Van Werven said.
"Instead of looking at name recognition, you have to look at the Democrat vs. the Republican base," Van Werven said.
Nor should election observers overlook the Democrats' strategy, which is to apply to all three 42nd District races the same type of coordinated campaign that brought them success in the 2013 County Council elections.
"This is really just the Democratic Party doing their coordinated campaign, working together, pooling volunteers and resources to what we see as key races," said Mike Estes, chairman of the Whatcom Democrats.
Estes and Van Werven agree on one thing: the likelihood of a Republican facing a Democrat in November.
"That's what I would assume would happen, but I wouldn't take that for granted," Estes said.
Van Werven and Knutzen are used to being friends, not rivals, and they talked a few times before they both decided to file for the same ballot in May.
"One of the things that I had hoped Bill would do is to look for the opportunity for a local race because he does have that local expertise with county issues, and he did a fine job on the County Council," Van Werven said. "The difference between us is, the past 20 years I've been working on those state-level issues, and I have a level of expertise."
Knutzen countered that he could bring his county expertise to the state level.
"I was a legislator. I know what's needed. I can hit the ground running," Knutzen said. "Look at my track record with the County Council. I had to work with people to get things done."
Knutzen proposed the Forestry Advisory Board, formed last year to give that industry more of a voice in county government. He sat at the same table with both sides of an urban-growth issue in 2010, and both proponents and critics of new downtown Bellingham homeless housing apartments in 2012.
Knutzen won his first county election and lost the second, but he got a majority of votes in the 42nd District both times. He had more than 52 percent of the vote in the district in his loss in 2013. (In precincts outside the 42nd in south Bellingham and the southwest county, the conservative Knutzen got less than 28 percent of the vote.)
Democrats had been trying to recruit Sidhu to run for office for three election cycles before he said yes. The candidate, who was president of a solar power company and now exports processed berries, said this might be the year for Democrats to break into the 42nd District.
"Nothing has percolated to a common, average citizen," Sidhu said of the past four years of Republican control. "People, they have displeasure, they have - I can't use the word 'frustration' - but close to that point. Nothing is done, and they are showing that."
FARMS, SCHOOLS AND FISH
The question of whether farmers will have the right to use all the water they need is very much up in the air, and Van Werven offered a specific solution: Give the city of Lynden credit for the water its treatment plant returns to the Nooksack River, and enable Lynden to transfer that water-right credit to area farmers.
"Without certainty on the water issue, 10 years down the road they're not going to have the opportunity to expand their operations, and that is a big deal for (farmers)," Van Werven said.
Legislators next year will be working under the shadow of the state Supreme Court's McCleary decision from 2012 that requires lawmakers to adequately fund K-12 education. The estimated cost of this mandate is in the billions of dollars.
Knutzen and Sidhu both emphasized education in interviews. Knutzen is meeting with officials from public schools and community colleges in the county. Lynden School District officials gave him a list of what they wanted, including full funding for education and no "unfunded mandates" - new programs with no state money to pay for them.
Sidhu, formerly the dean of engineering and trades at Bellingham Technical College, had some ideas of his own for education. Local employers should be involved in discussions of what skills are taught in the schools, he said.
"People take (education) as only personal development, but it has become the necessity to get a job," Sidhu said. "(Employers) should be very much at the table and a big voice in setting our education system, especially for undergrads. K-12 is the same thing."
Historically, third-party candidates in the U.S. don't fare well in elections at any level, but the Libertarians are making a showing in Washington this year. Twelve people who have filed to run for state representative described themselves as Libertarians, including Kunkel.
Kunkel said he would define success in the primary as finishing either first or second, but he was already satisfied with his campaign in an interview on July 3.
The Libertarian's main talking point in the campaign is his proposal to take hatcheries away from the state Department of Fish & Wildlife and have them run by private nonprofits - a model that has been successful in Alaska, Kunkel said.
"This is the only reason I want to run," Kunkel said. "I want to see a world-class commercial salmon fishery back in Washington."
BALLOTS ARE IN THE MAIL
The Whatcom County Auditor's Office mailed ballots for the Aug. 5 primary on Friday, July 18. Voters who don't receive ballots by July 25, should contact the office's Elections Division at 360-676-6742.
Voter pamphlets also will arrive in the mail soon, or can be found at whatcomcounty.us/auditor.
The Auditor's Office recommends returning completed ballots at drop boxes located throughout the county. The Ferndale drop box is temporarily on the front lawn of City Council Chambers, 5694 Second Ave.
The Bellingham Herald's guide to the Aug. 5 primary will feature candidate biographies and their views on several key issues in their races. That guide will be available by July 23 at BellinghamHerald.com/elections.