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Washington’s Primaries Too Hard to Call

As Washington state voters prepare for their first restricted primary in almost 70 years Tuesday, the state’s two hottest House contests show striking similarities.

Both parties fielded multiple candidates in the open 8th district while three Republicans slug it out for the nomination in the open 5th district.

Both districts are expected to be battlegrounds for control of the House in the general election.

In the suburban Seattle-based 8th, both primaries will feature battles between big-name neophytes and more traditional, party-oriented candidates.

In both cases political watchers think the well-known candidate has the advantage — talk show host Dave Ross on the Democratic side, King County Sheriff Dave Reichert for the Republicans. But in the absence of updated polling information and with a new primary system disliked and distrusted by most voters, the conventional wisdom is anything can happen.

“No one really has a good feel for where this race stands,” said Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for the Washington State Democrats.

The stakes are high as leaders in both parties see a real opportunity for their nominee to succeed retiring Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) in this truly swing district.

Beyond questions over voter turnout — and what kind of voter turns out and which ballot he chooses which could dramatically affect the outcome — the issue of early voting also looms large. In Washington, anyone can vote absentee and campaign insiders predict as many as half of all ballots will have been cast prior to primary day.

“Absentee ballots are coming in faster than usual,” said Jim Keough, a GOP consultant based in Bellevue who is not affiliated with any House campaign. “That means people are curious” about the new system, he said.

Since 1935, Washingtonians have been able to cross-party vote in the primary. This year, after a federal court ruling overturned the state’s open primary and forced the Legislature to adopt a new system, voters must choose just one party’s ballot to fill out.

Here is a look at the leading contenders in the 8th district:


Alex Alben, former RealNetworks executive, 45

Assets: Began running last year to challenge Dunn; won endorsements of all major daily newspapers; backed by labor and major abortion rights groups; currently running television spots; personally wealthy.

Liabilities: Relatively low name identification; significant contributions from personal funds, suggesting lack of grassroots support; jilted by state party chairman.

Cash on hand: $117,000.

Challenge: Overcoming rival’s high name identification.

Spin: “We estimate we have contacted half of the primary voters face-to-face. Alben is the most prepared candidate. [Ross] thinks he can coast into office without having to work for it,” said Ben Vaught, Alben’s campaign manager.

Dave Ross, radio talk show host, 52

Assets: Very high name identification; natural communicator; some labor support.

Liabilities: No television ads; earned negative publicity when he remained on air despite announcing intention to run.

Cash on hand: $23,000.

Challenge: Overcome perception that he is not campaigning hard and trying to win based only on name identification.

Spin: “We’re out-hustling everyone and Dave is leading the charge. We’re working to earn their vote, we know who the primary voters are and we’re targeting them,” said Marco Lowe, Ross’ campaign manager.

Also running is Heidi Behrens-Benedict, who lost three previous elections to Dunn.


Dave Reichert, King County Sheriff, 54

Assets: High name recognition; leads in most polls; known for capturing the infamous Green River killer, which spawned a made-for-television movie that is currently airing on cable; just released a book about the experience.

Liabilities: No experience in partisan politics; perceived as thin-skinned after deriding opponents for attacking him and then storming off the stage during a recent candidate forum; may have lost the high road once it became known that his political consultant is the head of a state business political action committee that is currently running negative advertisements in a different race; not on television.

Cash on hand: $90,000.

Challenge: Woo party faithful.

Spin: “He is recognized everywhere he goes; there’s a lot of good will in the community for him. Television buys are not a priority in the primary; he doesn’t really need it,” said Bruce Boram, political consultant.

Diane Tebelius, former U.S. attorney, Republican national committeewoman; 55

Assets: Party insider; won all major newspaper endorsements; leads in money chase.

Liabilities: Low name identification.

Cash on hand: $114,000.

Challenge: Overcome Reichert’s name identification advantage.

Spin: “Diane came into the race with a better understanding of federal issues. [Reichert] is relying on general goodwill from people. The primary Republican voters know Diane Tebelius well,” said Dan Brady, Tebelius’ campaign manager.

Luke Esser, state Senate majority floor leader; 43

Assets: Party insider; has a natural base in his state Senate district; law enforcement endorsements.

Liabilities: Entered race late; less name identification.

Cash on hand: $115,000.

Challenge: Motivate core voters away from Tebelius and attract independents.

Spin: “All the things that needed to come together in this race have. Reichert is imploding and Tebelius has been silent. Reichert’s support was soft … and Esser is here to pick up the pieces,” said Josh Kahn, Esser’s spokesman.

Also running: Conrad Lee, Bellevue City Councilman.

“The new primary is a big factor in who’s going to win,” Keough predicted.

If turnout is high and independents come out to vote, that helps both Reichert and Ross, as their strength is in their overall name recognition, Keough said. If turnout is low and only the party faithful come out to vote, that helps traditional candidates like Alben and Tebelius, he added.

Esser, Keough said, “could surprise some people. He’s a rising star in the party.”

In the 5th district, where Rep. George Nethercutt (R) is abandoning his seat to run for the Senate, all the action is on the Republican side.

There, three candidates are locked in a tough battle for the nomination and the right to challenge wealthy Democrat Don Barbieri in November.

Cathy McMorris, state Representative; 35

Assets: Only woman in race; party insider; farmer; backed by Club for Growth; leads money chase.

Liabilities: Opponents have ganged up on her and tried to paint her as someone who was ducking debates.

Cash on hand: $83,000.

Challenge: Get her voters, especially rural voters, to the polls.

Spin: “We need to make sure people understand the system and only choose the Republican ballot. We’re doing everything we can to win the primary; we’re not going to hold anything back,” said Jon Snowling, McMorris’ campaign manager.

Larry Sheahan, state Senator; 45

Assets: Party insider; swept law enforcement endorsements; highest name recognition of GOP candidates.

Liabilities: With two men in the race, gender could be an issue; low on money.

Cash on hand: $7,000.

Challenge: Rally party faithful and prove he is the most conservative candidate.

Spin: “We’re trying to put the personal touch on the campaign. We’ve really mounted a heck of a grassroots campaign. We’ve already focused on absentee ballots, now we’re working on the get out the vote effort,” said Phil Van Treuren, Sheahan’s campaign manager.

Fifty-three-year-old attorney Shaun Cross, who is also seeking the GOP nod, is endorsed by the district’s largest paper.