Skip to content

Washington, Wide Open

2 House Races Have No Favorites in GOP Primaries or in November

In a state that was known for swapping its House seats back and forth between the two parties in the 1990s, Republicans and Democrats are again bracing for Washington to be a hotbed of activity this campaign season.

The starkest examples of the state’s volatility are the two open seats in the 5th and 8th districts currently held by the GOP. Democrats think they have a good chance of winning both.

“Our first task is to bring back all of our incumbents,” Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said. “Our second task is to concentrate on the open-seat races; [Washington] has two and they are going to play a vital role in our success in the fall.”

Handicapping the Washington races is tough — both parties can point to reasons why their candidates will end up on top.

The 8th district — which is being vacated by Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) — went for former Vice President Al Gore and Democratic Gov. Gary Locke in 2000, Democrats note.

Dunn won re-election in 2002 with 60 percent of the vote and Republicans dominate the district’s state legislative seats, GOPers say.

The story in the 5th district runs along similar lines.

Before Rep. George Nethercutt (R) — who is leaving the House to run for the Senate — secured the 5th in the 1994 Republican sweep, former House Speaker Tom Foley (D) held it for 30 years, Democrats point out.

GOP operatives counter that President Bush carried the district with 56 percent of the vote in 2000.

But this year, several other factors — from the fact that the Democratic nomination fights should be less messy than those on the GOP side, to the prevailing winds in the presidential, gubernatorial and Senatorial races in the Evergreen State — will likely determine the winners.

Four credible Republicans will slug it out in the Sept. 14 primary in the 8th district outside Seattle, while Democratic frontrunner Alex Alben, a former high-tech executive, only has to best one opponent who previously lost to Dunn three times.

“The Republicans are splintered and busy going after each other,” said Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for the Washington state Democratic Party.

Forti countered that a spirited primary will help the GOP candidate.

“The Democrats still have a primary and ultimately in a multicandidate primary like the one on the Republican side, the strongest candidate will emerge and will be battle tested and ready to go” in November, he said.

King County Sheriff Dave Reichert was the Republican first to jump into the race after Dunn announced her surprise decision to retire in January.

Reichert achieved national fame for bringing Gary Ridgway, the infamous Green River killer, to justice.

He was first elected to the nonpartisan sheriff’s office in 1997, after being appointed to the previously unelected post a few months earlier.

Former U.S. Attorney Diane Tebelius, who is also a Republican National Committeewoman, got in next, followed by state Sen. Luke Esser, the majority floor leader and Conrad Lee, a Bellevue city councilman.

Reichert argues that he has the highest name recognition and released a poll backing up that claim.

According to the poll of 300 voters conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, 69 percent of general election voters have heard of Reichert.

The poll had a high error margin — almost 5.7 percent.

Reichert’s rivals agree that he is the best known of the GOP bunch, but they still think they can beat him.

His fundraising in the first quarter was “anemic,” Dan Brady, Tebelius’ campaign manager, said.

Tebelius did trounce Reichert in that department, according to the April 15 Federal Election Commission data.

Tebelius had almost $160,000 in the bank as of March 31. Reichert raised only $71,500 and banked less than $55,000.

Reichert’s former spokesman said that was a fluke.

“We’re not going to need as much [as the other candidates] but we will go out and raise it,” said Kent Patton, who was let go over the weekend [see page 12 for details].

Esser ended the quarter with almost $42,000 cash on hand; Lee has yet to file with the FEC.

Jim Dornan, a GOP consultant familiar with the race, said Esser got into the mix too late to be truly competitive.

Esser, who entered the contest in early March, agrees he got a late start — but said it ultimately will not matter.

“It would have been nice to have had the luxury of more time,” he said. “It definitely will be a competition for the base Republican voters — they will know my name by the time the election is here.”

Reichert has the advantage of name ID, but Tebelius “has been raising money hand over fist,” possibly giving her an advantage over the men, Dornan said.

While boasting about the quality of their candidates, Washington state Republicans acknowledge that Alben — who is the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination — has an advantage.

“It’s never good if it gets to the point of a slugfest,” Suzanne Tomlin, spokeswoman for the Washington Republican Party, conceded.

While the Republican candidates are arguably dialing for the same dollars, Alben — who is independently wealthy thanks to his time at the helm of RealNetworks — has almost exclusive access to Democratic donors in the district.

He had close to $333,000 in the bank on March 31 and had raised about $464,000 since September (Alben entered the race before Dunn decided to leave Congress). Of that, about $203,000 comes from his own fortune.

Brady, Tebelius’ manager, is less than impressed with Alben’s total given how long he has been in the race.

“I’m surprised he isn’t doing a little better,” Brady said.

Brost says Alben is doing everything he needs to at this stage and that national Democrats are happy to have someone who can be a self-funder, if need be, in the race.

“I think he’s doing well and really has grown as a candidate in the last couple months,” Brost said.

Heidi Behrens-Benedict, the interior designer dueling with Alben in the Democratic primary, reported raising $50,000 March 15-31 and told the King County Journal she has taken in another $22,000 since then. She had about $32,000 in the bank.

Alben’s people say a survey they commissioned shows the district is ripe for a Democrat takeover.

A generic Congressional ballot favors a Democrat 41 percent to 35 percent with 24 percent going to a third candidate or undecided, according to the survey by Evans/McDonough Co., which had a 4 percent error margin.

In the 5th district, money has not been a problem for Don Barbieri, the only true Democrat in the race. The Spokane Spokesman-Review noted that Craig Sullivan, the other announced Democrat in the field, is a Republican precinct committeeman who appears to have entered the primary to make trouble for Barbieri.

Barbieri, a former hotel chain president and local civic leader, said he would match all contributions he receives for this race, his inaugural campaign.

He has raised about $620,000 to date and contributed more than $310,000 to his campaign. As of March 31 he banked almost $479,000.

Barbieri said his business connections — cultivated over a long career in the Eastern Washington district — will help him even out the area’s GOP tilt.

Furthermore, the Republicans have to choose one candidate from a crowded field.

“The Republicans still have an ugly primary and there’s no clear frontrunner,” Brost said.

Barbieri has high name identification and is positioning himself as a centrist, and no one is challenging him because the Republicans are busy fighting one another, said Dornan, the GOP consultant who is advising state Sen. Larry Sheahan (R).

“We feel very strongly about our chances to win Washington 5,” said Kori Bernards, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“Barbieri has put together a strong campaign, he has the money and the Republicans clearly don’t have it together,” she said. “I think this is a great open-seat pickup opportunity for us.”

The three Republicans still in the race say Democrats should not count on it.

Combined, they have banked about as much money as Barbieri.

With almost $130,000 cash on hand as of March 31, state Rep. Cathy McMorris is winning the close GOP money chase.

The primary and general elections will be competitive, but McMorris says she is confident the eventual winner will have the necessary resources, as the party will step in after the primary.

“I am very much encouraged,” she said, noting that she picked up many of former state Rep. Todd Mielke’s supporters when he quit the race recently.

She also has picked up the endorsement of former Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.).

Sheahan has more endorsements and grassroots support, especially around Spokane, than either McMorris or Spokane attorney Shaun Cross, said Dornan.

“The battle will be joined in Spokane and the Spokane Valley and Barbieri will be strong there and someone needs to take him on head-to-head,” he said.

A poll conducted in January for KXLY-TV in Spokane bore out Dornan’s assertion that his candidate is the best-known Republican.

In the sampling of 400 voters with an error margin of 5 percent, 50 percent of voters said they knew of Sheahan. Mielke was next with 38 percent, followed by McMorris at 20 percent and Cross, who had 17 percent name recognition.

Barbieri trumped them all at 64 percent.

In a new poll conducted by the Feldman Group on behalf of Barbieri, his name ID is still the highest. And in head-to-head matchups, Barbieri bests all GOP contenders.

Sheahan is the only Republican who keeps Barbieri below 50 percent but still loses.

McMorris comes in at 32 percent, and Cross pulled down 27 percent.

The poll of 500 voters had a 4.4 percent error margin.

Recent Stories

Spared angry protests at Morehouse, Biden pushes post-war Gaza plan

Capitol Lens | Duck dodgers

Election year politics roil the EV transition

Thompson’s animal welfare, whole milk priorities in farm bill

Schumer plans vote on border security bill that GOP blocked

Republicans look to reverse rule based on gun law they backed