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House in review

The three Pacific Northwest states (those we track, anyway) have 16 U.S. House seats, 10 held by Democrats, six by Republicans. All are up for election this year; just four appear to be seriously contested. But three of those four are getting increasingly interesting. Below, we’ll do a reassessment.

By excluding some races from the ranks of “seriously contested,” we aren’t suggesting that the campaigns in all other districts are without point, but we do suggest the evidence points to them more as longshots than as prospective nailbiters on November 7. We’ll take a run through the “active” races as well.

First, the top four, in order of the likely edge-of-the-seat quality for election night, and the likely nervousness of the incumbent – and there are incumbents in all of them (just one open seat in the Northwest this year).

In the case of three of these races, a quick note. In months past, we’d periodically remark that we’d consider it very close or competitive or switching direction if certain indicators appeared on the horizon. Suffice to say: Many of them have duly (maybe surprisingly) appeared.

Dave Reichert
Dave Reichert
Darcy Burner
Darcy Burner

1. Washington 8th – incumbent Dave Reichert, Republican, challenger Darcy Burner, Democrat. Look on any substantial national list of key House races nationwide in the last half-year, and Reichert-Burner will figure prominently. Our most recent post on this one called it a tossup, and there seems no reason to change that. Quite a few national assessments say the same. So do a lot of polls, which in the last few weeks consistently have shown these contenders within two or three points of each other, both hanging close to, often barely shy of, the 50% mark.

This race got to that point in a smooth trajectory and since appears to have become stuck in neutral, maybe in part because not many undecideds may be left. It’s become a terrific tug of war. The ad war has been fierce, and sometimes there’s been blowback. Burner has been airing a spot featuring video of Reichert saying, “So when the jeadership comes to me and says, ‘Dave, we need you to take a vote over here because we want to protect you and keep this majority,’ I do it.’” It leaves out what he says next: “There are some times where I say, ‘No, I won’t.’” And it was taken from a video presentation by TVW, which bans use of its material for political campaigns. Burner has some significant complaints too, especially about the wave of third-party ads and robocalls in the district. Reichert got the Seattle Times endorsement; Burner’s backers seem if anything energized in their responses to it.

One indicator of a superheated race is when it draws big national money late in the game, when everyone most desperately needs it and priority decisions have to be made. This race has drawn massive funding in recent days from national Republican sources, and it’s the only one in recent days to draw a big pile ($355,00, last night) from the national Democrats as well. Washington 8 is as fiercely contested as any race in the country. A significant Democratic wave – even one smaller than now appears in development – could put Burner on top. This is an increasingly nationalized race, and that’s bad news for Reichert. In his campaigning and in his term as congressman, he’s been just close enough to President George W. Bush and to House leadership (pictures and all) to give Burner terrific ammunition.

For the moment, we’ll keep it in the tossup category, but barely. Reichert is riding on the ragged edge. He not only cannot afford a mistake; he can’t afford to run less than perfectly from here on. And that might not be enough.

Bill Sali
Bill Sali
Larry Grant
Larry Grant

2. Idaho 1st – challenger Bill Sali, Republican, challenger Larry Grant, Democrat. Political analysts nationally today view the overall contest for the U.S. House far differently than they did a few months or even many weeks ago. Even in mid-summer, few serious analysts in either party figured more than 25 or 30 Republican House seats were in significant jeopardy; today, that figure has doubled. That kind of massive national trend is one of the “free radicals” we suggested earlier this year as a contributor to a possible Democratic – Larry Grant – win in the 1st. National trends favoring Democrats tend not to permeate well into the Idaho electorate. But this surge looks truly big, and if it is, this seat is up for grabs.

Two factors underlie this. One is the Democratic wave, of course, but what gives that wheels is other consideration, a persistent sense that Republican Bill Sali has not brought all his party’s supporters under his umbrella. Republican moderates fled early, but that was never considered a big problem; conservatives have won substantially here before without them. The bigger issue seems to be uneven support in the mainline Republican organization – relatively few of Sali’s fellow legislators seem to be standing with him, for example – together with gaps in support. The latter appears most visibly in the form of one of Sali’s primary opponents, Robert Vasquez, who has continued blasting away at Sali in recent weeks. Vasquez’ second-place primary status shows he has a following that will listen. These in-party issues would not be enough, either, without (a) a meltdown on Sali’s part, (b) a brilliantly offensive campaign by the Democrats, or (c) a massive national wave that might pull just enough Democrats along.

Sali hasn’t melted down. His campaign has been run smartly, and Sali has performed well and sometimes better than that in his debates and other appearances (as has Grant). Grant’s campaign, if not a brilliant takedown effort, has established him as solid and credible. Neither campaign has made a serious slip so far.

Is this race close? The last poll put it 49-43, Sali leading – and that’s competitive. A better indication is Sali’s radio ads, which have gone negative on Grant: If Sali’s Republican tag were clearly sufficient to win, he’d be running out the clock with positive ads about himself instead. An even better indicator is new third-party robo-calls and the massive influx of money from national Republican sources, which materialized after Republicans polled on the race, and then declined to release the results. Yes, it looks close. (Less so than Washington 8, though; national Democrats haven’t been as forthcoming here.)

Republicans in Idaho have, over the last generation, showed uncommon skill at closing the sale right at the end. We aren’t labelling this a toss-up yet; it leans Republican. But gently; a much stronger breeze could push it over.

Cathy McMorris
Cathy McMorris
Peter Goldmark
Peter Goldmark

3. Washington 5th – incumbent Cathy McMorris, Republican, challenger Peter Goldmark, Democrat. In 2004 Cathy McMorris blew away two strong Republican primary opponents and in a near-landslide general election the best Democratic nominee the district had seen since Ton Foley. When her opponent this year turned out to be a rancher named Peter Goldmark who had never sought elective office before and wasn’t very well known around the district, and had no strong fundraising edge . . . well, this didn’t look like a nail-biter.

Today, though, you’d have to call it a serious race, and if the national Democratic wave is large enough, Goldmark could win. Today, we’d still call this a Republican-leaner. A week from now, that could change.

The big factor is the national picture, but Washington 5 is a district pointing out the folly of just letting the incumbent party go unchallenged – for that matter, of doing less than your best. Goldmark (who does have a political pedrigree, in that his father was a state legislator in the 60s), has had only limited advantages, but has made quite a lot of what he does have. He is a rancher from Okanogan, and uses the slog “Ride with Goldmark” – distinctive and more rugged-sounding than your typical Democrat. He only is a rancher, but looks (exactly) like one; and not only that, he’s been extremely active for decades in farm and ranching organizations and causes, giving him leg up in the rural areas where he’s been running especially hard. His race – this contest – has gotten little media attention in Spokane. But Spokane Democrats are re-energized this year, and better organized than usual. After a slow start, money has started coming in, and that together with web video has allowed him to cut some well-crafted spots that could logically sell in this district. He has done well in debates with McMorris. You sense a real energy around his campaign.

McMorris, by contrast, hasn’t been defining herself in especially helpful ways; at this point, she is easily cast as one of the participants in that awful Congress.

There’s not much to go on by way of polling or other big indicators. Our sense of this race, though, is that it’s becoming a real race. We’d not call it likely for Goldmark, yet. But if on election night you start seeing a smattering of Democratic dark horse wins around the country, don’t be too surprised if this is one of them.

Darlene Hooley
Darlene Hooley
Mike Erickson
Mike Erickson

4. Oregon 5th – incumbent Darlene Hooley, Democrat, challenger Mike Erickson, Republican. There is one basic reason this race is so serious: Erickson’s money, which he has contributed plentifully toward his effort to unseat Hooley.

Hooley is not without funds herself, and Erickson’s barrage of negative TV spots (some positives of himself intermixed) has been met solidly with return fire from Hooley; she didn’t just sit there and take it. In terms of pure TV visibility, it may be the most visible U.S. House race in the Northwest. If Hooley is genuinely vulnerable, this campaign should be enough to expose the weaknesses.

We’re not persuaded those weaknesses – there are some – are strong. Hooley’s support in the district is not overwhelming but it does seem solid enough not to be wiped away in a single run of TV ads. The seat is more than gently leaning in Hooley’s direction, we think. (None of this even factors in the national political trends, which favor Hooley to the extent they materialize.) If there have been unseen termites quietly chomping away at that support, we’ll take the measure of that, too, on November 7.

OTHER RACES We have kept a lookout on these other races, too. All can be considered active races: Candidates on both sides are making legitimate efforts, are much more than placeholders – but as matter stand none look likely to be close enough to keep everyone wondering late into the night.

IDAHO 2 Republican Representative Mike Simpson is simply a very, very tough target for Democrat Jim Hansen, who has been running a sound, intelligent and enthusiastic campaign pushing well beyond simply carrying the banner. But his odds here are just very tough, even in a year like this. If this seat flips, you will have witnessed a political cataclysm. (Do keep a look, though, on what the final percentage it; that may be parse-worthy.)

OREGON 4 Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio has run and won here in 10 general elections, few of them in conditions nearly so favorable as this. Republican Jim Feldkamp has worked hard in his second run in a row, but there’s little evidence he’s farther ahead now than he was two years ago at this point – and two years ago, when President Bush was a lot more popular in this district than he is now, he got crushed.

WASHINGTON 2 A string of newspaper editorials and news stories said it, and we won’t argue: Republican Doug Roulstone, who has run a solid and (for a challenger) well-funded campaign, is such a match for this district he probably would win this seat if it were open. As it is, he’s challenging a Democrat – Rick Larsen – who has the experience of barely winning some squeakers before consolidating his support and winning big last time. That kind of hard-won experience coupled with the wrong kind of year for Roulstone indicates that this cycle isn’t good timing. Larsen may not pull a landslide, but he’s a very solid bet to win.

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