24-Year-Old Republican Baffles Democrats, Heads to the State House

Melanie Stambaugh beat an entrenched Democrat in the 25th legislative district and helped the GOP move closer to evening things up in the state House.

From the outset to the bitter end, Democrats would not take her seriously. She was too young, they said, unseasoned and unqualified—just a pretty face with a thin resume and no political experience. Then 24-year-old Melanie Stambaugh shocked them all and won going away.

In doing so, the blue-eyed, blonde 2009 Daffodil Queen became the youngest woman elected to the Washington State Legislature since November 3, 1936, when Margaret Coughlin, a Seattle Democrat, captured a House seat two days after her 24th birthday.

“We didn’t see this coming,” Pierce County Democratic chair Jeannine Mitchell said of Stambaugh’s victory over Dawn Morrell, a five-term Democratic incumbent in the Puyallup-area 25th District. “This really blew me away. We are all just flabbergasted."

Groused Mitchell: “I don’t believe being a Daffodil Queen qualifies you to pass laws and work for your constituents in Olympia.”

Mitchell’s point is debatable, but what cannot be argued is that the Daffodil Queen festival is a very big deal in Pierce County, and has been for more than 80 years. Good looks and charm are valued, of course, but no one brings home the crown without straight A’s, an ability to think on one’s feet, and impressive public-speaking skills.

It was not an acrimonious campaign by any measure. Stambaugh likely won because of low turnout—meaning an older, whiter, richer, more Republican electorate—and sheer persistence and hard work. Indeed, it helps to be young.

“I hit more than 17,500 doorbells since mid-April,” says Stambaugh, who turned 24 on September 25. “And yes, having been a Daffodil Queen was a great benefit to me. A lot of people would say, ‘Don’t I know you? You look so familiar.’ And then I would tell them I was the Daffodil Queen, and they’d say, ‘Oh, yeah. Now I remember you.’ ”

She takes even more pride in her musical prowess. “I’m a drummer. That’s what I always wanted to be. I took first in the state in high school in mallet percussion,” says Stambaugh, who still practices on the drum set at her South Hill apartment.

On a sunny Monday morning, Stambaugh is at her office in downtown Sumner. Poised, polished, and smartly put together in a bright-red blazer and black dress slacks, the Puyallup native exudes confidence, which, fittingly enough, is exactly what she does for a living.

“I am a confidence coach,” she announces. With her mother and sister, Stambaugh two years ago opened a business, You Impression, which, among a range of personal-development services, leads group workshops to teach kids manners, respect, and leadership skills. “Recently we taught etiquette lessons to some seventh and ninth graders who were on the verge of joining gangs,” recounts Stambaugh.

Stambaugh says the political bug bit her during a memorable week at the state capital job-shadowing former 25th District Rep. Joyce McDonald, when the would-be legislator was in junior high. “That’s where the desire began. I loved the tensions, the clash of ideas and perspectives in order to come up with the best ideas. So this was always in the back of my mind to do this and run. My parents instilled in me the value of limited government, and that’s why I am a Republican.”

In February, Stambaugh made the decision to challenge Morrell. “I decided I was going to run as hard as I could, and at the end of the day it would be in God’s hands.”

“Melanie was probably the hardest-working candidate we had. She door-belled constantly,” says Pierce County GOP chair Bob Lawrence. “I think this district is looking for young, fresh faces in Olympia.”

A graduate of University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, Stambaugh managed to drum up nearly $175,000 in campaign contributions, much of which went toward mailers and postcards. She and Morrell——who raised about $280,000 in contributions—participated in five campaign forums—polite affairs, for the most part, where, Stambaugh says, the most frequently asked questions concerned transportation, finishing Highway 167, and funding education.

In addition to Puyallup, the 25th also comprises Milton, Edgewood, Summit, and parts of Fife. It’s considered a swing district, but it’s never been a cakewalk for Democrats. In fact, the 65-year-old Morrell, a critical-care nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup, lost her seat in 2010 to Republican Rep. Hans Zieger by just 47 votes, but returned to the state House after her election in 2012.

“I think the district leans conservative. There’s a strong Christian community here,” says Stambaugh, who “grew up Nazarene” and now attends the Puyallup Foursquare Church. Still, she considers herself a moderate Republican, pro-choice and deeply concerned about issues important to women.

The most current vote count shows Stambaugh winning by a near-landslide margin of 54.75 percent to Morrell’s 45.25 percent. (Morrell left the day after the election for a pre-arranged vacation to New Zealand and could not be reached for comment.)

If early ballot counts hold up, House Republicans will have knocked off four incumbents: Morrell; Rep. Kathy Haigh in the 35th District around Shelton; Rep. Monica Stonier in Clark County’s 17th District; and Rep. Larry Seaquist in the 26th District on the Kitsap Peninsula—meaning that the House Democrats’ majority in the 98-member chamber will be reduced to 51-47. Senate Republicans will keep their two-seat majority, and with Democratic ally Tim Sheldon in their ranks, they will control 26 of the 49 seats.

“We anticipated a difficult year,” says Travis Shofner, get-out-the-vote director for the House Democratic Campaign Committee. “This district is not always friendly to Democrats, and the Daffodil Queen is pretty important to people down there. I know that because I grew up there.”

Stambaugh celebrated her triumph with her family at a GOP party held last Tuesday night at Clover Park Technical College. Asked what her friends thought of her electoral success, Stambaugh replied, “They weren’t surprised. They knew if anyone could do this, it would be me.”

econklin@seattleweekly.com

 
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