Writings and observations

Indications of this have been coming for a while, but it seems time now, with three consecutive polls showing the candidates within a couple of percentage points of each other, to call the Washington House District 8 contest a clear tossup. Among major office contests in the Northwest, it now appears to be the only such.

We won’t say, yet, that Democrat Darcy Burner is poised to defeat Republican Representative Dave Reichert. But we will say the momentum is hers, and unless she stalls in the next month – maybe even then – he will have to find a way to turn things around, quick, if he’s to survive.

A year ago, such a situation seemed maybe not wildly improbable, but less than likely. Reichert had just been elected by not a big but a significant margin, is a very well known figure in the area, has endured no big scandal, and faces a candidate who started out not only virtually unknown but also without ever having run for office before. And bear in mind that almost all congressmen who run for re-election win.

So what has happened to shift the balance?

Washington 8th House District

There seems to have been no single factor, rather a collection of circumstances, good and bad fortune, a few errors and a few smart calls.

Timing is crucial in politics, and this is the best year – so it seems now – for a Democrat in eastern King County for a long time. The state legislative delegation has been trending Democratic, to include an incumbent Republican switching parties this year. The national mood is favoring Democrats, and President Bush is not in favor there. All this is true, to this point anyway, to an extent not easily envisionable a year ago.

Reichert and his advisors certainly do not seem oblivious to all this, and in a number of cases have pointed (ostentatiously, sometimes) to their centrist or moderate tack on this issue or that. But campaign visits by President Bush and especially advisor Karl Rove were bad calls; every such linkage tied him ever more tightly to all that he tried to loosen himself from on other occasions.

One of Reichert’s big advantages was campaign money, which he could have used more effectively to carefully define himself. That didn’t happen. In the meantime, Burner turned into a ferocious fundraiser, out-raising Reichert three quarters in a row, and her money has been put to work.

She is still a relatively inexperienced candidate, and from time to time it shows. her advertising and materials have been variable in effectiveness, though generally pretty good. Mostly, though, she comes across as likable, as both friendly and serious, and her numbers have steadily risen as she’s become more visible in the district. Some reports have it that Burner is running not far behind Reichert in the southern, Pierce County, part of the district, an area where down-home pleasantness is good for sales. If that’s true – since this is the part of the district that should be most difficult for her to crack – then Reichert has big problems.

Reichert’s campaign people may have entered the year with the idea that, sitting as they were on a huge financial advantage and no enormous specific problem in sight, they could for the most part do the usual and ordinary and otherwise run out the clock. Regardless, their mindset now has to be on executing a turnaround. If not, Burner’s momentum could well allow her to run out the clock and finish first.

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Typically, we don’t report much here on technical election complaints to either the Federal Elections Commission or to state elections offices. While some may be serious, many are simply attempts to barb an opponent with an embarrassing “gatcha!”. But now from Michigan, of all places, comes one worth more attention.

The local background to this is in Idaho’s 1st U.S. House race, where Republican Bill Sali won his primary campaign in considerable part because of the help of Club for Growth, a supply side/tax cut group based in Washington. The Club’s money was the biggest reason Sali’s finances were well ahead of everyone else’s in the primary and have continued so large. Sali has, in debates, acknowledged the group is an important part of his support, and said they simply believe the same things he does.

The FEC complaint just filed by Michigan Republican Representative Joe Schwarz, however, takes this to another kind of level.

Schwartz recent lost his primary election to Tim Walberg, an evangelical minister, and since has decided not to fade quietly away. Club for Growth was also a key factor in Walberg’s campaign, and after some checking Schwartz fired off to the FEC a complaint alleging a string of violations including sharing campaign resources – such as polling and media consultants – among four campaigns. One of those four campaigns was Sali’s.

This is, so far, a complaint only and not a finding. But the implications ought to get people to take notice, because the sharing aspect of all this suggests that the Club was not merely the largest contributor among several, but was playing a managing role as well – running, in part at least, these campaigns from its central office in Washington. That might seem a bit of a reach except for the very large amounts of money pouring into these campaigns.

Again, this is a complaint and not a finding. But it is worth quire a bit more review and discussion.

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