"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Baseline 08: The Majors

So we’ve run through our three lists of races to watch in the legislatures of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, 10 races each; today, a quick overview of the top races in the region. Nothing especially obscure here, but a tad of perspective might be helpful in seeing how the year shapes up.

The numbering logic in similar to the legislative rundown: These are the contests which, from this viewpoint, seem to have the most significance or analytical interest as we look to where Northwest politics goes from here. It isn’t a list of which seats are most likely change parties (though we think there’s a good shot some may) or which incumbents are most endangered. Rather: Which contests stand to say the most about local and Northwest politics? Some of these races tell us something apart from what the partisan balance will be: They tell us something about how people see their community and their state.

One other highly cautionary note: Candidate filing deadlines are quite a ways off, in March for Oregon and Idaho and not until the first half of June for Washington, meaning that surprises in personnel doubtless will continue to unfold. What looks of interest may well change; but this is how it looks at the moment.

(The list is below the fold.)

1 Oregon Senate: Incumbent, Gordon Smith, Republican. Idaho is overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans, and Washington just a little less dominated by Democrats. Oregon is the closest of the three to a two-party state, though the last few elections have kicked it well off center, what with both houses of the legislature and all partisan statewide state government offices, and five of the seven members of Congress, in Democratic hands. What makes it the closest to two-party, more than anything else, is one person: Smith, the one remaining statewide Republican; oust him and Democratic dominance becomes overwhelming. And the odds on his ouster are not terribly far from even; our sense is that his chances for a third term are maybe a hair better than not, but no more than that. The attitude of the voters and the intelligence and organization of the races (more than the money as such) will determine this contest, and it will be hard fought out all year.

2 Washington governor: Incumbent, Chris Gregoire, Democrat. Given the astonishing closeness here last time, between the same two candidates (there seems no significant primary opposition to either Gregoire or Republican Dino Rossi), this has to rise near the top of a major contest list. Our guess at this point is that Gregoire has a very real edge here, and while Rossi retains great good will among his partisans, and at the least will not be blown out, odds are against him crossing the line. But the broad assumption that this is a serious and prospectively close contest will help move it that way, and Gregoire doesn’t have a lot of room for mistakes. On the other hand, neither does Rossi. This may be more a meticulous contest than a field of fireworks.

3 Washington House 8: Incumbent, Dave Reichert, Republican. Our sense of rematches is that more often than not, a second challenge involving the same two candidates leads to a better and stronger campaign by the challenger, and a greater losing margin. But not always – there are ample exceptions to the rule – and so far Democratic second-runner Darcy Burner has been putting together a heckuva campaign, exceedingly well funded and structured, in some ways apparently (we’ll know more with the next campaign finance reports) outstripping Reichert. More important, the east side of King County has been shifting left, hard, in the last few years, and Reichert is having to scramble to keep up. When Reichert was elected in 2004, the legislative delegation here was split and still mostly Republican; now it’s nearly all Democratic, and no part of the state (or Northwest, for that matter) has changed so much so fast. This one bears a microscopic watch.

4 Oregon Secretary of State: Incumbent, Bill Bradbury, Democrat. Bradbury is term-limited and out with this term, and there’s a big field of candidates out there to replace him – all Democrats, so far. Based on that and on recent history, the odds presently favor Democratic retention of the office. But the four Democrats in the race now (and who’s to say there won’t be more?), all of them state senators, are all strong, distinctive and varied personalities with very different kinds of support. There’s Kate Brown, the top fundraiser so far and the first in, former majority leader with a strong Portland base of support. Vicki Walker of Eugene has some statewide reputation as a boat-rocker and has some of the most interesting geographical options for mining backing. Brad Avakian of Washington County could generate a strong suburban base, and Rick Metsger has visiblity from Portland newscasting and some of the strongest campaigning skills. This could be lots of fun for the political scientists.

5 Idaho Senate: Incumbent, Larry Craig, Republican. An open Senate seat, no incumbent running (as we all well know in this case) – sounds like loads of fun and games, right? This is, however, Idaho, and the Republicans seem to have settled on their candidate, Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch, who will have a primary contest (against never-elected Rex Rammell) but not one in significant doubt. His presumed Democratic nominee, Larry LaRocco, is both hardworking (in the field more than half a year) and experienced (having won elections to the U.S. House himself in 1990 and 1992); but Risch has faced LaRocco twice on the ballot before, and beat him both times. The outcome – this being Idaho – seems clear enough here, with a caveat or two, principally this: What if the attitudes about national politics sweeping around the country, and dominating politics in Washington and Oregon, actually start having an effect in Idaho? We have yet to see much evidence that it has. But we’ll be watching.

6 Idaho House 1: Incumbent, Bill Sali, Republican. We have to say that Sali hasn’t done himself the political damage in Congress that we half suspected he might; such controversies as he has had haven’t been of the kind to riotously upset his Idaho 1st constituencies. And yet when the national Democratic congressional stragetists put this race on their list of 40 targets (Reichert’s seat was the other in the Northwest), they weren’t being unreasonable, either. And the Democrats may be sniffing something in the wind, what with three contenders crowding their primary. We’re not seeing a shift of ground here, but it could yet happen.

7 Washington House 3: Incumbent, Brian Baird, Democrat. Was a time a few months back when a serious primary contest for Baird, who had just shifted gears on Iraq, looked not just possible but likely. At this point, that should be geared back to “possible”. Some prospective contenders have been approached and backed off; lower-keyed headlines from the Middle East may have helped Baird too. But Iraq is still apt to resurface in this race.

8 Oregon Attorney Genral: Incumbent, Hardy Myers, Democrat. Another of the three Oregon statewides opening this next year, this one too is presently featuring a strong Democratic primary and no Republican in clear sight (though things could be highly entertaining if Kevin Mannix‘ campaign jones gets the better of him again and he again runs for this office Myers beat him for years ago). The two Democrats are very different types, the smoother and lower-key state Representative Greg Macpherson and the more strongly boat-rocking former prosecutor John Kroger. This will be a sharp clash of styles, and approaches.

9 Washington Secretary of State: Incumbent, Sam Reed, Republican. Just how strong is vengeance? On most bases, this shouldn’t be much a contest at all, and it may not be. Reed is generally well liked and regarded, has done a sound job and this Republican in a Democratic state would likely win another general election without breaking a sweat. We’d just throw in here a couple of cautions: Reed is a self-defined moderate in a generally strongly conservative Republican Party; and he was a loyalist to his best intepretation of the law, not necessarily to his party’s nominee, in the 2004 governor’s election, when some members of his own party briefly toyed with a recall effort. We’ve heard nothing so far of a primary challenge to Reed. But we wouldn’t be shocked if it happened.

10 Washington Commissioner of Public Lands: Incumbent, Doug Sutherland, Republican. Sutherland, somewhat like Reed, wouldn’t seem to be especially targeted. But he is. Peter Goldmark, a Democratic Okanogan rancher who ran against U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris last year, is already in the field. West Seattle Senator Erik Poulsen has expressed some interest too. This may be one of the liveliest races around the state this year.

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