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Cracking Washington 8

Democrats, still wondering how a suburban Seattle district eluded them once again last year, are nonetheless optimistic that they can knock off freshman Rep. Dave Reichert (R) in 2006.

But they have no candidate in the race yet. And Reichert is getting an early jump on fundraising this year, with the aid of his highly regarded predecessor, former Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), whose own solid victories in the tossup district drove Democrats crazy.

Reichert, a popular former sheriff known nationally for catching the infamous Green River killer, won the swing 8th district 52 percent to 47 percent. It was a pitched battle that saw the party committees collectively expend more than $6 million on the race, not including leadership political action committee money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Reichert, who was then King County sheriff, and local celebrity radio talk show host Dave Ross (D) both had to beat back intraparty challengers and emerged from the mid-September primary in major need of outside money.

Reichert took in about $1.6 million last year and hopes to raise a lot more than that before his next election.

“We want to raise enough resources to put the seat in a position so that it is not competitive,” said Reichert Chief of Staff Mike Shields.

The previous cycle was unique, he said, because it was an open-seat race with the year’s latest primary date.

“Now we have the ability to take a longer view and we have a very aggressive fundraising plan in place,” he said. “It’s just a very different dynamic than an open seat.”

And Reichert is getting national help early this time.

He started the year with roughly $9,000 in the bank and owing almost $68,000.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has tagged him as one of its 10 most vulnerable Members, which means he will benefit from events such as the upcoming fundraiser House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is headlining for Reichert and others through the leadership PAC ROMP — Retain Our Majority Program.

Shields said that Reichert has also picked up remnants of Dunn’s successful fundraising machine.

“At the end of March we will have a large-donor event that is a continuation of Jennifer Dunn’s large-donor event,” Shields said. “She’s been a big help … and many of her donors have signed on; we’re benefiting from her donor base.”

Dunn shook up the race for the Bellevue-based district when she decided not to seek a seventh term at the beginning of last year.

Democrats say not to worry.

“Reichert’s no Jennifer Dunn,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg said. “Reichert certainly has an impressive bio, but he’s going to have run on his record this time. We believe that works in our favor.

“At home, being part of Tom DeLay’s caucus is going to be very difficult for him to defend,” she added.

Democrats do believe that Reichert carries a different profile now that he is a partisan instead of an unaffiliated law enforcement officer.

The district supported Sen. Patty Murray (D) and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year. Part of Dunn’s success came from her honed image as a moderate, despite her prominence within the House’s Republican Conference.

“We’ll have to see how he performs in Congress,” said George Howland Jr., political editor of the Seattle Weekly. “Jennifer Dunn was able to take a lot of conservative votes but be perceived in her district as a moderate.”

Painting Reichert as someone too conservative for the district is certainly the approach Democrats plan to take.

“This is a moderate district and by being a back-bencher in the most conservative Congress in memory Reichert is going to be taking some pretty bad votes; we’re watching the whole thing very closely,” said Christian Sinderman, a Seattle-based Democratic strategist.

Howland is not convinced the strategy will work.

“Dave Reichert will continue to play to his strengths — that he’s a great law enforcement officer — he’ll drive those points,” Howland predicted. “I see no reason that [security] concerns will be diminished in the next two years.”

Reichert’s committee assignments were wisely chosen.

He serves on the Homeland Security panel as well as the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — both of which cover a wealth of issues important to 8th district voters. He also serves on the Science Committee, which oversees a number of issues prominent in the tech-heavy district that abuts Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters.

Howland does not have much confidence in the Democrats’ chances.

“They had a great candidate and they couldn’t take it in a year that wasn’t good for Republicans in Washington state,” he said. “They’ll elect Democrats for president and Senate, but boy they just keep on voting for that Republican Congressman.”

Washington state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt asked the million-dollar question for Democrats.

“The district has been trending more Democratic; the question is, can we catch him with that trend?”

So far no Democrat is chasing Reichert.

Former RealNetworks executive Alex Alben, who lost to Ross in the primary, has shown no willingness to try again, while Ross supposedly has not ruled out another bid.

Neither returned calls seeking comment for this story.

Democratic sources say the most serious would-be challenger at this point is state Rep. Ross Hunter, who represents a swing legislative district within this swing Congressional district.

The 1983 Yale University graduate retired from Microsoft in 2000 after 17 years, during which his titles ranged from program manager to general manager of Microsoft’s commercial Internet system.

Howland said Hunter is a “heck of a doorbeller who is not known outside of his Senate district.”

Hunter was just elected to his second term in Olympia.

He could not be reached for comment.

A local trial attorney, Scott Gordon, and one former high-tech industry employee who is now a law student are also said to be interested in the race.

It is not known whether Heidi Behrens-Benedict, who lost to Dunn three times and ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination last year, would make a fifth attempt.

Berendt would only say: “There seems to be a lot of people poking around, looking at the race. I think we have a good shot at beating Reichert in 2006.”

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