Second of four posts on competitive congressional contests in the Northwest.
Our clearest tipoff that the Washington 5th district contest was getting close came through inadvertence.
Republican Representative Cathy McMorris, seeking her second term in the Republican district, was checking into a telephone conference call with Republican Senator Larry Craig and a group of constituents, on the subject of veterans benefits, a hot topic in the 5th. Before entering the general call, she had what she thought was a private two-way talk with Craig, and said she was concerned that the race in her district was becoming very tight. Craig remarked that polling numbers looked bad all over. Neither of them knew a reporter for the Spokane Spokesman-Review was also on the line, blocked from announcing his presence but able to hear every word.
That was confirmation – since there hadn’t been much objective evidence, such as polling – that Democrat Peter Goldmark was in fact closing on McMorris, putting her re-election at genuine risk.
It was a late-blooming race; Goldmark was more or less universally seen as a longshot when he entered earlier in the year. The seat once held by Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley was securely held by Republican George Nethercutt for a decade; having beaten Foley, Nethercutt was never again in serious jeopardy in the 5th. When he left to pursue (unsucessfully) a Senate seat in 2004, Democrats had high hopes that their candidate, a well-liked Spokane businessman who was well-funded, had a strong shot. McMorris, emerging from a three-way primary, clobbered him with 59.7% of the vote. In this Republican district, where the state legislative delegation was all Republican outside central Zpokane (and one Walla Walla representative), McMorris looked like a solid bet to hold the seat easily. In her first term, she engendered no major controversy or scandal, and seemed reasonably well liked personally.
Goldmark, though well known in agricultural circles, had never run for office before and had to introduce himself to the district. This proceeded slowly, especially since mass news media showed little interest in the contest, and since Goldmark was far behind McMorris in fundraising. (Fundraising picked up toward the end; he ultimately raised about $900,000 to McMorris’ $1.5 million – money was probably not the deciding factor here.)
Aside from whatever the Democratic tide might contribute, Goldmark did have some issues. One, as indicated, was veteran benefits and care, growing out of a long-running story about veteran health care in eastern Washington. Another was the economic trouble many rural regions encounter; Goldmark made that his signal issue, and his rancher appearance and even his slogan (“riding with Goldmark”) keyed to his rural support. The rural areas are, of course, the most Republican parts of the district.
The end result was McMorris at 56.1% to Goldmark’s 43.9% – McMorris down by 3.6% from 2004, but not very close to a Democratic win.
Two thoughts about this.
One is that a diminished McMorris number this year isn’t what you’d ordinarily expect. When House members win their second terms, especially in districts (like the 5th) where their parties dominate, their numbers usually rise. Nethercutt’s winning percentage, for example, rose from 51% the year he beat Foley to 56% two years later, and that’s not an unusual development. Our speculation is that absent a Democratic tide – in a more or less “neutral” year – McMorris might have pulled around 63% or 64% this year. (That also reflects the greater attention to the race, and the larger Goldmark fundraising, than normally would have been the case.) Did the tide visit the 5th? Yes: It just didn’t reach high enough.
There is a strategic question buried in this, however, for the district’s Democrats to consider. Might the Democratic tide have been leveraged into more – and might it be if another tide occurs in 2008? To that, a qualified yes.
There are a dozen counties in the 5th district, and Goldmark lost all of them. His best (47.3%) was Whitman, home of Washington State University; he polled 45.5% in Spokane County, which is where about two-thirds of votes in the district are cast. (He did well, for a Democrat, in his home Okanogan County, with about 45%.)
But in that same election, Spokane County threw out two Republican state legislators, and two state senators – not the longstanding one senator – will represent it in Olympia. The county was marginal, maybe leaning Democratic (depending on how you apportion it) in legislative races.
Maybe as significant, Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell carried the 5th district, riding over an energetic campaign by Republican Mike McGavick. Cantwell carried three counties in the district, Asotin (50.7%), Whitman (49.3%) and Spokane (50.1%). But a key percentage of people in those places switched from Cantwell to vote for McMorris in the next line on the ballot, and that killed Goldmark’s chances.
Votes for Democratic candidates can be found in this area. It may be that part of Goldmark’s problem was that he looked for them in the wrong place. The Washington 5th is far from a soft touch for Democrats, but the results suggest it is not entirely beyond reach either.Share on Facebook