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Washington-8: America's Swing District

By Reid Wilson

From the shores of Lake Washington, just a dozen feet or so above sea level, to the 14,410-foot peak of Mt. Rainier, from the high-tech nerve center of the Microsoft campus in the north to the rural farmlands in the south, few Congressional Districts embody the range of extremes of Washington's 8th.

The district includes Medina, where Bill Gates owns a home visible from miles away, and Mercer Island, where Paul Allen's eight contiguous plots of land comes with a floating helipad. It houses Enumclaw and Buckley, where few visit save to fill up on gas on the way to the base of the mountain, and Snoqualmie, home of the 268-foot waterfall made famous on television's Twin Peaks. The ensuing diversity, along economic, generational, class and racial lines, makes certain that no politician, Democrat or Republican, will have an easy race for years to come.

The district has never elected a Democrat to Congress. It has, however, become decidedly more blue of late. Al Gore and John Kerry carried the district, and Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Democrats, won it in their most recent races.

Congressman Dave Reichert has learned that lesson well. The two-term Republican has won twice, though by the skin of his teeth, with less than 52% of the vote. Republicans on a national level, say observers, have only Reichert to thank for keeping the seat in GOP hands. It is no accident the incumbent won re-election: Reichert's campaign contacted more than 500,000 voters in 2006, more than any other campaign in the country, and as many as 43,000 on Election Day alone, running what some consider the best Republican race of the year.

Of the thirty state legislative seats elected from the district, twenty-one are Democrats. That's a massive shift from just a decade ago, when fewer than half a dozen Democrats occupied those same seats.

Despite a nationwide housing bubble that may have burst, the real estate market in Seattle, just across the lake, remains stronger than virtually every other market in the country. "A lot of Democrats who decided they wanted families moved out of Seattle and into the suburbs," said GOP consultant Todd Myers, himself a resident of the district. New families accustomed to living in apartments and renting homes in the city find it easier to afford big lots with wide yards, and prefer to send their children to better schools in Bellevue, the heart of the 8th District.

The population shift created the quintessential soccer mom, to whom Dave Reichert appeals perfectly. As the first elected sheriff of King County, Reichert won national fame for catching the Green River Killer, a fact he does not hesitate to mention just minutes into any interview. His law-and-order credentials, many believe, are a good fit for new families worried about their children's safety and security.

Reichert's 2006 opponent, Democrat Darcy Burner, looks like one of those soccer moms. In fact, Burner is a lot like many of the district's average voters: She lives just outside Carnation, a town twenty minutes outside of Bellevue; she has a business background, as a project manager at Microsoft; and she was pleased that this reporter arrived at a recent interview ten minutes late - it had given her time to get to the office after dropping off her child at the first day of school.

After losing by a narrow two and a half percent, Burner turned her sites to a re-election bid in 2008. But, some Democrats believed, if Burner could not beat Reichert in a Democratic landslide like 2006, the party needed to find a stronger candidate. Burner, some argued, didn't have the experience to convince voters she was ready to take over for Reichert. "Especially contrasted with the sheriff, he age and record weren't the best profile," said one Democratic strategist unaffiliated with any potential candidate in the race.

Still, when President Bush came to Bellevue last week to raise money for Reichert and the state GOP, Burner impressed many. A favorite of liberal bloggers around the country, Burner held a simultaneous internet town hall meeting in hopes of attracting new donors and competing with the president. It largely worked; Burner earned more than $125,000 from 3200 new contributors in just a few days.

That success was all State Senator Rodney Tom needed to see. Tom, a Republican state representative who switched parties and knocked off an incumbent senator, had entered the race, but after Burner's success, he dropped out, yesterday. "Our campaign was going great, our support was great," he said yesterday, after his announcement. "I just looked at [Burner's fundraising] and said, 'man, she has a broad base of support.'"

"I look at 3300 [sic] supporters, and that was how democracy was supposed to be," he said.

Burner is one of a few challengers who will be able to keep pace with her incumbent opponent. And her arguments for her election echo popular and successful Democratic themes likely to be widely rerun in 2008: She favors a new focus on health care, a problem which she says is at "crisis level"; and measures to curb and end global warming.

But, as for many Democrats running against incumbent Republicans next year, Burner's main concern is the war in Iraq. She favors safely removing troops within a year and renewed diplomatic efforts to involve the United Nations, the Arab League and other allies. "The problem that we have there right now, it's not a military one," she said. "It's like we're remodeling a house and the only tool we're willing to use is a sledge hammer. The sledge hammer isn't the right tool anymore. We cannot solve what is broken in Iraq through the use of U.S. military forces."

Reichert's position on Iraq is less absolutist. The congressman's stands, he says, are to support the troops, and he has been disappointed with the administration's handling of the war. Still, many Republican strategists agree that Reichert may find himself vulnerable on the issue. "The Republican brand, as such, is at a fairly low point," one strategist, who asked not to be identified, said. "In a normal year he, and Republicans, are going to run better," said Myers, acknowledging that 2008 will not be a normal year.

With the country facing such serious problems over the next decade, or more, Reichert's biggest strength is his sheriff's office experience, and he knows it. Re-elected sheriff twice with little more than token opposition, many Democrats mockingly wonder how they can beat the "shur-iff."

While Burner does not have electoral experience, she plays up her business credentials. "The career politicians have gotten us to this point," Burner said when asked what experience she would bring to myriad problems the country faces. "Maybe we need some new thinking."

"I'm a normal person who is out there trying to fix what is broken in our government," Burner said. "I am all about getting things done. I have spent my entire career working hard and getting things done, including things that people didn't think were possible. And that is exactly what we need right now in the people that we're sending to Washington, D.C."

GOP strategists still see Burner's lack of government experience as her biggest weakness, and it seems the hymnal has already been passed out, as every Republican's tune sounds the same. "There are elected officials and there are elected official wannabes," Myers said. "She's a creation of the new internet politics," the GOP strategist offered.

Washington's Eighth District mirrors problems both Democrats and Republicans have historically faced. The Republican incumbent owns a better organization, as in the 2004 presidential election; the Democratic challenger, as in the race last year, has the burden of Iraq with which to saddle the incumbent. The problem for both: President Bush and his organization lost the Eighth to John Kerry; Burner lost last year to Reichert.

Never before has a party had back-to-back elections as favorable to them as Democrats did in 2006. It is almost unfortunate that Washington's 8th District sits in the Pacific time zone: If they knew the outcome of this race early, both parties will be able to decide whether to break out the champagne or turn off the TV and go to bed.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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