Washington Candidates Preparing Despite Uncertainty

Posted February 23, 2004 at 6:45pm

Regardless of how Washington state settles its primary dilemma, dozens of House candidates are gearing up for the end result.

But as the races begin to take shape, Republicans find themselves with more open seats to defend and scant challengers for could-be vulnerable Democratic incumbents.

“Right now our chances look fantastic,” said Kirstin Brost, communications director for the Washington state Democratic Party.

Democrats hold six of the state’s nine House seats, and two of the Republican-held seats are open this year. Furthermore, Republicans have yet to find strong challengers, or any challengers, for most of the Democratic seats.

This was not how it was supposed to be.

Just a few short months ago, Washington state Republican Party Executive Director Peter Abbarno was very excited about his party’s chances in the 1st district, was boasting that Democrats had yet to field a strong challenger in the 4th district and was not even thinking that the 8th district might be in play.

But then Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a Republican heavyweight, stunned everyone when she declined to run for a seventh term in her swing 8th district seat, opting to spend more time with her new husband and job hunt in the private sector.

Next came the bombshell that Abbarno’s star candidate, King County Councilwoman Jane Hague (R), would not challenge Rep. Jay Inslee (D) after all.

It was supposed to be “the hottest” race in the state, Abbarno said, before Hague left him high and dry.

Citing family reasons, specifically myriad health problems plaguing members of her extended family, Hague bowed out two weeks ago.

And now Democrats think they may have found the perfect candidate to take on Rep. Doc Hastings (R) in the 4th.

Sandy Matheson, an active civic leader in the Tri-Cities area in the vast district that spans from the Oregon border north to the Canadian border and from the Cascade Mountains east to abut one of the state’s more populous districts, is expected to enter the race.

She’s a good match for the district, a conservative Democrat with a background in business, education and health care, who has supported Democrats and Republicans alike in the past, Brost said.

“We’ve had a lot of warm bodies to run against [Hastings] in the past,” Brost said. “It would be a gift” if Matheson runs.

Republicans still have high hopes of retaining the 5th district, which is open because Rep. George Nethercutt (R) is challenging Sen. Patty Murray (D).

Republicans have four strong candidates who will duke it out in the primary, if the state has one, or in the party caucus: Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce Chairman Shaun Cross, state Rep. Cathy McMorris, former state Rep. Todd Mielke and state Senate Majority Floor Leader Larry Sheahan.

Democrats have two candidates so far — Don Barbieri, a state economic development commissioner, and Craig Sullivan, a computer company executive — though Barbieri is the favorite of party leaders.

The 5th was home to former House Speaker Tom Foley (D) before Nethercutt knocked him off during the 1994 Republican revolution.

Republicans also hope to hold onto Dunn’s seat, but state and national leaders alike concede it will not be easy.

Alex Alben, the RealNetworks executive who planned to challenge Dunn, presumably has a leg up on everyone since he has been in the race the longest.

So far he has only drawn one challenger in the Democratic primary, Heidi Behrens-Benedict, who lost to Dunn in the previous three elections.

Despite predictions that the Republican primary would become a free-for-all, several potential candidates have decided not to run, deferring to King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, who caught Green River killer Gary Ridgway.

Republicans still believe they are competitive in the 2nd and 3rd districts.

Island County Auditor Suzanne Sinclair is challenging Rep. Rick Larsen (D), who has won with only 50 percent of the vote in his past two elections, and Rep. Brian Baird (D) has drawn two GOP opponents in the 3rd, Dawn Courtney, a radio marketing representative and Tom Crowson, a GOP activist and building contractor.

Disappointments aside, Suzanne Tomlin, spokeswoman for the Washington state Republican Party, is optimistic.

“Those who have stepped up are great candidates,” she said, acknowledging the GOP might have difficulty recruiting new challengers while the primary situation is still in flux.

Furthermore, the state party is focused and excited about its two marquee races, the Senate and governor’s races: “Those are the ultimate goals,” Tomlin said.

In addition to Nethercutt, Republicans have cleared the field of strong opponents to enable state Sen. Dino Rossi to focus on the general election.

Gov. Gary Locke (D) is not seeking re-election.