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Reichert puts race for Washington governor on battleground

Former House member still faces tough race in Democratic state

Former Rep. Dave Reichert's run for governor gives Republicans their best chance in decades to win Washington's governor's office, but it's still an uphill climb.
Former Rep. Dave Reichert's run for governor gives Republicans their best chance in decades to win Washington's governor's office, but it's still an uphill climb. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — Republicans haven’t won a gubernatorial race in Washington in more than 40 years, but a former GOP member of Congress will force Democrats to spend time and money extending their winning streak next year.

Last week, former Rep. Dave Reichert announced his candidacy in the open-seat race to replace Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who is not seeking a fourth term. It’s almost eight years since one of the times Reichert considered running for statewide office.

In Washington state, Reichert might still be best known as the King County sheriff who helped catch the Green River Killer, but in Washington, D.C., he’s a former House takeover target that Democrats couldn’t ever defeat. 

Reichert was first elected to the House in 2004, winning a Seattle-area seat left open by moderate GOP Rep. Jennifer Dunn by a 52 percent to 47 percent margin. Two years later, Republicans were clobbered in the midterm elections with unpopular President George W. Bush in the White House. Republicans lost their House majority, but Reichert survived with a 51.5-48.5 percent victory over Democrat Darcy Burner. In 2008, Reichert was targeted again and defeated Burner again, 53-47 percent. 

Reichert enjoyed a much better political environment in 2010, President Barack Obama’s first midterm election. Republicans took back the House, and the congressman won narrowly, 52-48 percent, in a competitive race against Democrat Suzan DelBene

After that, Democrats effectively stopped trying to defeat Reichert, who won his next three races with at least 60 percent. DelBene was elected in 2012 to a redrawn 1st District and is now chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

So, can Reichert actually win? 

Republicans haven’t won a gubernatorial race in Washington since John Spellman in 1980, when the Seattle Seahawks were in their fifth season ever. It’s been so long that the Seahawks are about to unveil new vintage uniforms for this season from that era. 

Considering Donald Trump received 37 percent (2016) and 39 percent (2020) in his two presidential runs and is the front-runner for the GOP nomination, Reichert is going to have to outperform the top of the ticket by double digits once again in order to win. With Washington’s top two primary system, Reichert will need to cross 50 percent to win the general election and can’t rely on winning with a plurality.

Reichert has won two competitive elections in presidential cycles. Comparing vote share, he outperformed the GOP presidential nominee by 4 points in 2004 and 11 points in 2008, according to district calculations by Daily Kos Elections. Reichert also outperformed the GOP presidential nominee by 12 points in 2012 and 15 points in 2016, according to Daily Kos Elections, but those House races were not considered competitive.   

Reichert has demonstrated his ability to outperform the top of the ticket, but he might have to change some of his tactics. 

After his narrow reelection victory in 2006, Democrats planned to finish the job in 2008 and continue to use Bush to drag down the congressman. Instead of running as fast and as far away from Bush as possible, Reichert invited the unpopular president to his district for a fundraiser. Reichert and his team decided Democrats were going to try to couple him with Bush anyway, so he might as well collect as much money as possible early in the cycle to defend himself. Reichert raised more than $500,000 from the Bush event, spent the next year fending off Democratic attacks, and won another term, even though Obama won at the top of the ballot. 

It seems unlikely Reichert would invite Trump to the state for a fundraiser this time around. Back in 2016, the congressman declined to endorse Trump and said he couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton either. In 2017, Reichert said he would have arrested Trump over his comments about sexual assault to “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush, if the reality TV show star had been in his jurisdiction. 

It’s likely Reichert stays as far away from Trump as possible, but gaining enough separation to win won’t be easy. In 2020, the most impressive over-performance in a gubernatorial race was probably North Carolina Democrat Roy Cooper’s. He won with 51.5 percent, about 3 points better than Biden’s loss to Trump in the Tar Heel State. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu over-performed Trump by 20 points in New Hampshire, but it wasn’t a competitive race.

In Washington’s race next year, the filing deadline isn’t until May, but the Democratic field includes state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, state Land Commissioner Hilary Franz, and state Sen. Mark Mullet. 

As a Republican running statewide in Washington, Reichert is the underdog in the race. But his electoral track record must be taken into account. That’s why Inside Elections changed the rating of the race from Solid Democratic to Battleground.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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