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Beyond the Tide: WA 8

Last of four posts on competitive congressional contests in the Northwest.

In our list earlier this fall of four close House races, we picked the contest in Washington District 8 as the toughest and prospectively closest. We were right (not, of course, that we weren’t in a rather large crowd in making that assessment). The reasons were clear enough. And now, after election day, as a lot of Seattle area Democrats wonder what went wrong, those reasons and others often mentioned this fall stand.

close districts mapIt was, for some months, presumed to be a close race. It was, very close, close enough that the outcome wasn’t fully clear until well after election night. It stood a fair chance of being one of Republican House seats the Democrats could pick up this year, but it never seemed likely to be a runaway win.

Let’s review the main reasons Washington 8 was competitive to begin with. It is a historically Republican district trending Democratic, and based on the state legislative election results on November 7, you could reasonably argue the area has now shifted from “lean Republican” to “lean Democratic.” Fertile ground, in other words, for a Democratic challenge. The challenge, from former Microsoft manager Darcy Burner, was unified – no primary conflict – highly energetic and (increasingly as the year went on) well funded. Burner was a fine fundraiser and a reasonably skillful campaigner. Republican incumbent Dave Reichert was framed to a degree as a manipulated good haircut riding on the glory of an old criminal case he oversaw when he was sheriff of King County. And in a year of fury at President George W. Bush and the Republicans in charge in Washington, Reichert made the mistake of allowing himself to be identified fairly closely with them.

But don’t forget what’s countering that. While the 8th district is in transition, that doesn’t mean all the Republicans in it have crawled into caves – or that a lot of the voters are disinclined to split their tickets. (The transition probably goes along with increased ticket splitting; the heavier Democratic voting below may have slightly depressed Democratic voting above.) Burner was, if intelligent and enthusiastic, also a new candidate, with a learning curve not only on her part but also on the the part of the voters – they didn’t know her all that well. Because much of the campaign backing her was based on the anti-Republican mood, they didn’t learn a lot. But they did know Reichert, and for all his flaws, a lot of people in the area liked the guy.

Washington District 8

A week before election night, Joel Connelly of the Seattle Post Intelligencer visited a Drinking Liberally event in Seattle; he asked him what he was hearing in the 8th district. He said he had just finished a round of trips to morning coffees, and the core of what he described was this: Voters were torn between expressing a vote of outrage at D.C. Republicans on one hand, and voting for a guy they still kinda liked – Reichert – on the other. The people of the district were essentially torn between nationalizing and personalizing the election.

We’ve gotten some comment – and think there’s validity to it – that one of the late deciders in the Idaho 1st district race, in which Republican Bill Sali picked up late percentage points, was the massive (million dollar or more) wave of negative advertising against Democrat Larry Grant: “They were appealing to R’s to stick with the party, save the world from a Dem. congress and Nancy Pelosi. They were definitely not touting the virtues of their candidates.” Much the same was happening, possibly on an even larger scale, in Washington’s 8th district. (Remember that in contrast to some of the upsets in other red districts around this country, this was a serious challenge by Democrats perceived as such by Republicans far in advance of the election; they had plenty of time to prepare for this one.) In a race between a generally liked incumbent and a relatively unknown challenger, was that a decisive factor?

It could have been. After all, not much change was needed. This was, as already noted, a close race, winding up 51.3% for Reichert to 48.5% for Burner. In 2004, running against well-known radio personality Dave Ross, Reichert also pulled 51.5%.

Jim Brunner, guest-posting on David Postman’s Seattle Times blog, makes a good point (one often heard here, over the years): “In any race as close as Burner’s, you can pick your own favorite reason for why the race turned out like it did. Some have cited the ticket-splitting nature of the 8th District. Over at the pro-Burner Slog yesterday, Josh Feit said Burner lost because she ‘wasn’t such a good candidate’ and added ‘there was a lot of truth to the Republican rap that her experience didn’t match Dave Reichert’s.’ Others blame (or credit) the media, including The Times editorial board’s endorsement of Reichert. I tend to side with the people who believe Reichert’s comparative advantage in experience was enough to get him re-elected despite the prevailing Democratic current.”

(That post was a followup to one in which Burner complained that the Democratic tide this year “was clearly a wave that helped men more than women,” and seemed to argue that her gender was a debilitating factor. That argument makes no sense at all. Nationally, women expanded their presence in D.C. this year. And as for the Washington 8th district, Burner need only reflect on Reichert’s Republican predecessor, Jennifer Dunn, who won big here cycle after cycle and doubtless would have again this year if she hadn’t departed, on her own choice, in 2004. (We might note here that several of Burner’s post-election comments ring a sour note; she’s not setting herself up well for another run, if she had that in mind. Maybe some sense of that got through to voters in the 8th during the campaign, too.)

Wins for Reichert these may have been, but they also suggests how closely-drawn this district is, and how slim the margin for error. If the gradual transition from Republican toward Democratic continues, this district could become not just marginal but really difficult for a Republican to win. If Democrats next nominate a well-known local figure who can become as well known as Reichert by election day – and less susceptible to being negatively defined – and otherwise run as strong a race as Burner did this time, they could find themselve breaking through the finish line. It wouldn’t take much, at a time when Republicans are having to stanch increasing losses in this area.

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