Democratic activists around the country have been about as worked up, in both directions, about their own representatives in Congress as they were about Republicans (in one unilateral direction) before 2009. Are they on board with health care reform (and, notably, a public option) or not? Are they in favor of major financial regulation reform, or not? And so on. More than a few question how helpful many of the congressional Blue Dogs, for example, really are in pushing a governing agenda.
This dynamic (the Republicans have a different variation, partly because they're out of power) may have an effect on the November election. But its force, major or minor, is first most likely to be felt in Democratic primaries around the country. And of those, there may be not many better examples than in the Washington 3rd - southwest Washington.
The House seat has been held by Democrat Brian Baird, who likely could have been easily re-elected this year but opted out instead. On the scale of activist faves, Baird scores weak, with his break from many Democrats over Iraq a few years ago, and his recent reluctance to back his caucus' health care legislation. (Presumption here is that he will vote in favor, ultimately, but that's not nailed down in his public statements.)
The two main Democratic candidates - the nominee will very likely be one or the other - are former legislator and businessman Denny Heck from Olympia, and current state Senator Craig Pridemore of Vancouver. The in-party contrast between them will make for an interesting study, one that national observers ought to pay some attention to.
Heck has gotten Baird's endorsement, and his background offers rationale for that. He is a former state legislator (a decade's worth), a former gubernatorial chief of staff (for Democratic Governor Booth Gardner), a co-founder of the fine C-SPAN-like TVW network (and a visible presence for some years on it), and a participant in a number of businesses, enough to make him fairly wealthy and allow him to partly underwrite his campaign. He underlines all of this in his campaign announcements and statements, which tend to lead off with a discussion about the need to improve the area's jobs picture. He seems clearly intelligent and informed.
That last - a statement that economic development is very important - is about as far as he seems to go toward issues, though. Scan his web site, watch his video, read the news stories about him, and there's very little to say about what he actually would do as a member of Congress. In the current context: Would he be a backer of health reform legislation, and if so, what kind? Where is he on finance reform? The answers to such questions seem awfully elusive.
Pridemore is a different case. A state senator and a Clark County commissioner before that, he too has an impressive resume (if maybe a little less striking than Heck's). The key difference is pointed up by the first thing Pridemore says in his new video: "When you listen to me talk, when you listen to me explain my feelings about the issue, I think you know I'm telling you what I truly believe." (Pridemore's web site has a page on "issues," but intriguingly, Heck's does not.)
Pridemore's stances on those key current issues (pro-reform bills, in health and finance, among other things) has been made totally clear. And, while running in the primary, he has used lines (in his campaign web site's video no less) like this: "I was disappointed in Democrats. I was disappointed that we didn't have people there willing to stand up and tell the insurance companies and tell the health care industry that this program is not about them."
The importance of job creation is major and real, of course, but nobody thinks otherwise - it's a commonplace.
So figure Pridemore along the lines of the center, possibly center-left, of the House Democratic caucus, and Heck more likely to the center-right (on balance), around where Baird is. As best we can tell. In the context of the Democratic primary 2010, that's where their relative handling of the issues would suggest they would be.
This will be a tough and maybe close race. Heck will have more money and may get more support from a number of party leaders. Pridemore will get the activists. And we'll see what happens this summer.