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Washington Candidates Fight for Competitive Seat

Most Competitive Race in State Will Challenge Eventual Winner to Represent Diverse Interests

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
House candidate Suzan DelBene is one of the individuals running in the Democratic primary in what will be the most competitive race in Washington state.

The eventual Republican nominee in Washington’s 1st district may want to reach out to Rep. Dave Reichert for some tips.

The two Democratic challengers whom Reichert defeated in a nearby district over the past three cycles were drawn into the open seat and are early frontrunners in what will be the most competitive race in the state.

Darcy Burner, who lost to Reichert in 2006 and 2008, and Suzan DelBene, who lost in 2010, are both former Microsoft officials. They’re banking that the open-seat race offers a better opportunity than challenging Reichert.

“This is an open seat,” Burner said in an interview. “There’s no chance I’m going to be running against somebody that Lifetime network is going to be running TV movies about what a hero he is the entire election.”

Burner was referring to Reichert’s role as King County sheriff in the 2001 capture of the “Green River Killer,” who had been on the loose in the Seattle area for two decades. Reichert is running in safer territory now, while Burner and DelBene are running in mostly new terrain.

DelBene said the 1st district has a diverse makeup of urban and rural areas, like Reichert’s 8th district. “But this one definitely is unique in its own way given the border, for example, and a larger agricultural base,” she said.

Rep. Jay Inslee’s (D) gubernatorial bid left his district more vulnerable to a drastic redraw, and that bore out in the bipartisan commission’s final map. Democrats gained a favorable seat in the new Olympia-based 10th district, while Republicans were given a realistic shot at winning the 1st, which now juts north from Seattle’s eastern suburbs to the Canadian border.

Along with north King County, the 1st takes in much of the eastern parts of Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties, areas currently represented by Rep. Rick Larsen (D) in the 2nd district.

It’s easily the most competitive in the state, and it’s one where this year’s winner will likely never face a comfortable re-election. Reichert had a similar fate after first winning the 8th district in 2004.

“This is going to be déjà vu in reverse,” said Ron Dotzauer, a veteran Democratic strategist. “The Reichert district was always going to be in play once he got elected. If a Democrat were to be fortunate enough to win this seat in 2012, which is not a given, they’ll be under siege every cycle.”

Burner and DelBene, who both hail from the southern end of the district, where Microsoft’s Redmond campus is also located, have plenty of Democratic company in the race. State Sen. Steve Hobbs, former state Rep. Laura Ruderman, state Rep. Roger Goodman and tech executive Darshan Rauniyar are also running.

One Democrat and one Republican are likely to advance beyond the August jungle primary. On the Republican side, Snohomish County Councilman John Koster, who lost to Larsen in 2010, is also running, as are James Watkins, Larry Ishmael and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Anders.

There is chatter that other Republicans are looking at the race, including a Microsoft executive. But Koster is the early favorite among Republicans given his organization, name familiarity and fundraising list, said Chris Vance, a former state GOP chairman.

“The conventional wisdom right now is that John Koster’s too conservative for the King County part of the district,” Vance said. “Maybe so, but he’s a perfect fit for the rest of the district.”

District Diversity

Burner said the district’s population is split in half between the suburban areas of Redmond, Kirkland and Bothell — the high-tech area where most of the candidates live — and the three large counties to the north. Larsen said he’s spoken with five of the six Democrats running, with each seeking his insight on the district’s three expansive counties, which Larsen currently represents.

“Whoever is running in this district needs to understand that there are differences between Blain and Bothell,” he said of two towns in the northern and southern reaches of the district.

In Snohomish, he said, the focus is on Boeing, the largest employer in his current district. In eastern Skagit, a jobs discussion will likely center on agriculture and broadband expansion into the rural areas. And in Whatcom, there are large dairy and berry farms that export milk and berries across the globe, as well as aluminum smelting and the potential for a bulk commodity terminal in Cherry Point that would export coal.

“So there has got to be a different approach to each of these places,” Larsen continued. “The issue overall in the district will still be jobs and the economy. But you even have to talk about it differently, depending on where you are.”

Burner has been deeply involved in liberal causes and has been a presence at the annual Netroots Nation conventions. Asked whether she can win over voters in a moderate district, Burner said a lesson from the 2010 midterms is that swing voters “are more likely to elect people who have principles than people who are squishy and have none.”

Burner said her stump speeches have all focused on jobs. But voters continue to be skeptical that anything can be accomplished with a “broken Congress.”

So she will be highlighting her experience over the past few years working for ProgressiveCongress.org, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3), through which she worked with the Congressional Progressive Caucus and formed a filibuster-reform coalition.

“I actually understand what it is that is broken and what we can do to fix it, which is not true of anyone else in the race,” she said.

DelBene is standing on her vast experience in the business world, including a stint at Microsoft, as an entrepreneur helping to create small businesses, managing small businesses, and working in microfinance to help those in poverty “get back on their feet,” she said. DelBene most recently served as director of the state Department of Revenue, where she was “tackling our economic issues from a different side.”

“I think I bring a unique skill set and experience set to the race, which is important for the folks who live in this district,” DelBene said.

DelBene, who entered the race in mid-January and kicked off a tour of the district on Thursday, also brings considerable wealth and a willingness to expend personal resources on the race. After spending $2.3 million out of her own pocket in 2010, DelBene said she’ll put some money in again but has not yet decided how much.

Burner, DelBene and the rest of the widening field have less than seven months to introduce themselves to the district before the Aug. 7 primary.

“I’ve told folks that being the Representative of these areas is like being the mayor, not the Congressman,” Larsen said. “You have to know what’s going on locally. If you walk in with one playbook, these folks will quickly teach you that you have the wrong one.”

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