Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Washington 8: Outcome of Northwest Rerun Could Rest on the National Mood

By Stuart Rothenberg

Darcy Burner is back, and the former Microsoft employee is understandably optimistic about her rematch against GOP incumbent Rep. Dave Reichert.

Burner, 36, came out of nowhere to draw almost 49 percent against Reichert last year in a suburban Seattle district that has been inching away from its Republican roots and toward Democrats.

The challenger appears to be more relaxed this time, at least compared to when I interviewed her in the previous cycle. Back then, as a neophyte candidate, she seemed more concerned with demonstrating her maturity than connecting with people.

Burner’s fundraising surely is much better this time. She is likely to show $400,000 in the bank as of Sept. 30, almost four times what she had on hand at the end of 2005. Burner and Reichert each spent just more than $3 million in their previous race.

But in addition to being a more experienced candidate, Burner also is more outspoken. Indeed, she calls herself “more straightforward” in talking to voters, and that certainly includes her comments about some of the most controversial issues of the day.

In one Web video this year, produced by the liberal blog OpenLeft, Burner uses language not normally employed by candidates: “I’m Darcy Burner and I want to tell you that the FISA bill that just got passed in the House completely sucks.” In that video and in another, she criticizes some in her own party for not standing up to the Bush administration.

Burner, who is likely to be a favorite of liberal bloggers and anti-war activists, is undoubtedly correct that sentiment has turned further against the Iraq War, and against the president, in the district over the past year. And depending on where Iraq stands a year from now, that might be enough to get her a victory.

But Reichert will not go down easily, and the district’s arithmetic still gives him a narrow advantage. Prior to winning an open seat in Congress in 2004, he served as King County sheriff, and he became a celebrity for his work in catching the “Green River Killer.”

Democrats hoped to win this suburban Seattle district when Republican Jennifer Dunn retired, but Reichert won the open-seat contest by 5 points and held on last year by almost 3 points in the face of a Democratic tsunami that defeated many GOP incumbents.

Though the 8th district is one of those suburban districts that have been moving away from the GOP over the past decade, it is not without its challenges for Burner.

Ten legislative districts (each of which elects three state legislators) overlap the territory of the 8th district. In 2000, 20 of those 30 legislators belonged to the GOP. Four years later, those same 30 legislative seats divided equally between the two parties. Now, after the 2006 elections, 21 of the legislators are Democrats, while only nine are Republicans.

Democrat Al Gore carried the district by 2 points in his 2000 presidential bid, and Democrat John Kerry carried the district by 3 points four years later.

But it would be a mistake to think that the Congressional district has turned into a Democratic bastion. Dino Rossi (R) carried it in the 2004 gubernatorial race, and Reichert’s re-election last year in the face of a huge national Democratic surge says something about his appeal and the district’s competitiveness.

Burner is betting that the presidential year will bring out a dramatically larger electorate in 2008 and that she can benefit from the additional voters. It certainly is the case that these presidential year voters are more casual in their voting behavior and, therefore, more likely to be influenced by short-term factors, including Iraq, than by strong partisan attachment. That should help her.

But again, the numbers, available from the Washington Secretary of State’s office, offer Reichert reason for optimism.

More than 80 percent of the district’s voters reside in King County, while the rest live in Pierce County. Dunn’s 35,700-vote plurality in King County in 2002 plunged to a 4,400-vote margin for Reichert in 2004, and to a mere 300-vote margin last time for the Republican. Obviously, if that trend continues, he will lose, probably in 2008.

But unlike suburbs in Pennsylvania and Maryland that have ousted their GOP incumbents recently, King County still went ever so slightly for Reichert in November, even in a huge Democratic year. Burner might carry the county next time, but can she carry it by enough?

Although only 18.9 percent of the 2006 Congressional vote came from the Pierce County portion of the district, that electorate is not insignificant. Reichert carried Pierce by more than 7,000 votes last year, down a bit from his 11,700-vote margin in 2004 and Dunn’s 10,000-vote plurality in 2002. But Pierce County’s vote in the 8th is clearly not following King to the Democrats.

Given the presidential year turnout, Reichert probably can expect to grow his margin in Pierce in 2008, providing him with a larger cushion to offset the loss of additional votes in King.

Reichert’s ultimate fate depends on voters’ willingness to distinguish him from President Bush and see him as an “independent” legislator.

His votes this year for an increase to the minimum wage, for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, for lower interest rates for student loans, and to repeal tax cuts for oil companies — much like his earlier opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and his vote against giving federal courts jurisdiction in the Terri Schiavo case — are weapons that he can use to deflect Democratic attacks and to portray himself as independent.

If the 2008 cycle is as bad as or worse for Republicans than last year, Burner could easily defeat the Congressman. But if the mood shifts even slightly, minimizing the burden of carrying the GOP label, Reichert could find himself looking stronger in 2008, not more vulnerable.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 4, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.