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Purple passion: The close congressionals

The close districts (in purple); projected D blue, projected R red

Usually, there aren’t as many congressional districts in serious play as there are this year, and that’s true in the Northwest as well as elsewhere. Of the Northwest’s 16 U.S. House districts, five to seven can be realistically considered competitive, more than usual. We’ll rank them here from the basis of most like to turn over in party control.

Most of the region’s districts are, as usual, unlikely to change hands, or change member of congress. Only one Northwest House seat is open – the Washington 3rd, vacated by Democrat Brian Baird; in the remaining 15, incumbents are running again, and even in a year like this, beating an incumbent isn’t easy.

Both parties have safe seats. Among Democrats, those would include the Washington 1st (Jay Inslee), 6th (Norm Dicks) and 7th (Jim McDermott), and the Oregon 3rd (Earl Blumenauer) and 4th (Peter DeFazio). Among Republicans, those would include the Washington 4th (Doc Hastings) and 5th (Cathy McMorris-Rodgers), the Oregon 2nd (Greg Walden) and the Idaho 2nd (Mike Simpson). Yes, a pile of money is being dumped into the Oregon 4th on behalf of an – can we say eccentric as a a diplomatic term? – eccentric candidate, but we suspect it’ll be wasted because DeFazio is thoroughly entrenched there.

Two other districts look strongly likely for incumbent re-election but bear watching – we won’t put them away just yet. One is the Washington 9th, where Democrat Adam Smith has been winning strongly for a decade but where recent polling has given him mediocre numbers against someone who should be a minor candidate. It’s not enough to suggest Smith is on the edge, but enough the it should send his campaign people scrambling to make sure of their ground. The Oregon 1st is a slightly different case, where Democrat David Wu seems about as secure as usual (he too has been winning here for a decade). But Wu has a stronger and more aggressive opponent than usual in Republican Rob Cornilles. (You see his signs thick, across much of the district.) By all conventional measures Wu seems in decent shape; that could change if this turns into a truly unconventional election.

Those 11 races feel, at least for now, like reasonably safe calls. The remaining five are the races that given you some pause when it comes to predictions. And if you’re a partisan, these are the Northwest House races that should be occupying your attention.

1. Washington 3 (open; Democrat Denny Heck, Republican Jaime Herrera).

This one, in the Northwest’s only open House seat, ought to give predictors fits. The polling has tended to favor Herrera, and so has most of the predictive punditry. She has some definite advantages, running with the “out” party in angry times, and she has some clear campaigning skills. Heck comes with some unusual strengths, though, a much deeper record in the district and a more distinctive personality – he comes across as much less partisan cookie-cutter than she does. He has more money (twice as much according to the Center for Responsive Politics). Probably the smart money still goes with Herrera, but this race is far, far from over. It could land either way.

2. Oregon 5 (incumbent Democrat Kurt Schrader, Republican Scott Bruun).

This one looked close when Bruun, one of the most respected of Oregon state House members, announced his challenge, and it is closely competitive now. Bruun has had much less money than Schrader (less than half as much), but that may be changing, and there’s word of a late last-minute massive national Republican money dump (of more than $1 million). Prognosticators have gone back and forth on this one, as have we; our initial take was a narrow Schrader win, then sensing a narrow Bruun win. Right now, with ballots to drop this weekend, it’s very hard to know. This is a truly centrist district overall (as is the Washington 3rd). Schrader has worked hard to bill himself as a centrist Democrat. Bruun (and his advocates) have tried to paint Schrader as a tool of national Democrats. But at the same time, Bruun has been lurching hard to the right in his campaign, even flopping from long-held legislative stances to match up with House Republicans. As in the Washington 3rd, things are fiercely in flux here.

3. Idaho 1 (incumbent Democrat Walt Minnick, Republican Raul Labrador).

In contrast to the two preceding races, most political watchers in Idaho will casually give you a prediction on this: Minnick wins, partly because of drawing significant Republican support, partly because of money (which he has been pouring into TV spots), partly other factors. Could be. But at a panel last week at which three analysts (your scribe being one) all predicted Minnick, one of them – the Idaho Statesman‘s Dan Popkey – said he thought the race would come down to within a couple of percentage points; and there was no argument on that from the other two. Of course, when an election is so close it will be decided within a couple of points, it becomes de facto nearly unpredictable. Forget the polls showing Minnick way ahead – in our view, they’re hogwash: If he wins, and he may, it’ll be close. Just how many Republicans will Minnick attract? How many Democratic loyalists will he lose? Who is being turned off by one campaign or the other? Does a massive national GOP tide sweep Republicans numbers even higher than usual in Idaho? The truth is, conventional measures seem to narrowly point to Minnick, but no close result here will come as a shock.

4. Washington 8 (incumbent Republican Dave Reichert, Democrat Suzan DelBene).

Up until recently, we gave up on this one as a race to put in the tossup category. Reichert was challenged by well-financed and highly energetic campaigns in the last two elections, and won clearly both times. So this year we have another younger female software exec who’s raised a lot of money and campaigned really hard and … well. And yet, something seems to have changed. Maybe subtle changes in Reichert’s appeal; there seems to be a slightly darker shading to the reporting and commentary about him. There seems to be a sense (in the newspaper endorsements, anyway, and sometimes elsewhere too) that DelBene is simply a stronger, more articulate, readier candidate than her two-time predecessor Darcy Burner was. And the most recent polling shows a dead heat. The moment, this looks like Reichert with an edge; but there’s movement here, it wouldn’t take a lot to flip, and we wouldn’t stick any actual money on it.

5. Washington 2 (incumbent Democrat Rick Larsen, Republican John Koster).

If the Republican national tide turns out to be a bust, or simply overestimated, then this looks like a pretty likely re-elect, again, for Larsen. If it isn’t, if there’s a really big red wave, this could be one of the seats swept up in it. Larsen has a solid electoral track record here, and has no special personal issues going into the race. He (at last report) has a strong money lead. But Koster is his strongest opponent in years, has a significant base of his own in Snohomish County, has campaigned hard, has polled well and actually narrowly outran Larsen, barely, in the August 17 primary election. Larsen has not been ignoring these indicators, and his campaign is plenty active – you can’t really consider him an underdog, and if conditions are normal he should still win. But Koster is well positioned to take advantage of good fortune should it appear, and it may.

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