Young Delegation Keeps Washington State Opportunities at a Minimum

Two years after Democrats in Washington state added three new members to the House delegation, opportunities in the near future for the state’s congressional hopefuls are down to one open seat this year and the possibility of another in 2016.

There is a dearth of competitive races this cycle outside of the GOP fight for the seat of retiring Republican Doc Hastings — though national Republicans are hopeful the 1st District race will develop. It may be a long time before the landscape of opportunities for Washington’s congressional office-seekers matches what it was in 2012, when two seats opened up with the retirements of longtime Reps. Norm Dicks and Jay Inslee, who is now governor, and another was added through reapportionment.

In a delegation largely filled with relatively young members who represent mostly safe districts, there are only a couple foreseeable chances for politicians in either party to make it to Congress in the next few cycles.

Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are both expected to run for re-election in 2016 and 2018, respectively. On the House side, Democrats Denny Heck and Derek Kilmer are in their first terms while Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler, whose district has swing potential, is in her second. Three longer-serving representatives — Democrats Adam Smith and Rick Larsen and Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers — are all in their 40s.

But a House seat opening could pop up in two years. Republican Dave Reichert told a local Fox TV affiliate last year he is considering a challenge to either Inslee or Murray in 2016. If Reichert’s seat were to open, possible Republican candidates to replace him include King County Councilman Reagan Dunn, three-time statewide nominee Dino Rossi and state Rep. Hans Zeiger.

Despite President Barack Obama’s narrow victory in the 8th District in 2012, Democrats are pessimistic about picking it up in the event Reichert leaves.

“Unless there’s a tsunami of some kind, I would expect a Republican to hold that seat if he were to leave it,” said longtime Democratic strategist Ron Dotzauer, who was skeptical Reichert would run for higher office.

Washington Democrats who are looking for the next prime opportunity to run for Congress will likely have to wait for the retirement of Democrat Jim McDermott. The 77-year-old has not indicated he plans to step down anytime soon. But when he does, the party will be able to fall back on its deep bench in and around the Seattle-based 7th District.

One name mentioned by multiple Democratic operatives as a potential successor was state Rep. Eric Pettigrew, who is chairman of the state House Democratic caucus. Other prospective replacements include state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, state Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson and state Reps. Cyrus Habib and Marko Liias, who briefly ran for the 1st District in 2012 before being drawn into the 7th.

The set of candidates looking to fill Hastings’ seat come from a more rural part of the state. Of the six Republicans who have launched campaigns in the Central Washington district, the early favorite may be Dan Newhouse, a former state representative from the Yakima Valley and the son of longtime state legislator Irv Newhouse.

Another top-tier candidate is state Sen. Janéa Holmquist of Moses Lake, who rolled out numerous state legislator endorsements. A potential wild card in the race is tea party Republican Clint Didier, a former NFL tight and alfalfa farmer from Eltopia, who made unsuccessful bids for Senate in 2010 and state land commissioner in 2012.

Washington is one of only two states, along with California, where candidates of all parties compete against each other in the primary and the top-two finishers advance to the general. Unlike Louisiana’s jungle primary, which is held in November, the general occurs even if one candidate receives a majority of the vote.

The large field of GOP candidates in the 4th District race means that a Democrat could finish in the top two, which would all but end the race in this solidly Republican district.

Republican strategists say the party will put up a more competitive fight this midterm cycle against Rep. Suzan DelBene, who took office in 2012 by defeating Snohomish County Councilman John Koster with 54 percent. Some Republicans view that race as a lost opportunity because the district was drawn during redistricting to be the most competitive in the state.

DelBene’s challenger, Pedro Celis, is viewed within the GOP as a formidable opponent. Celis is a Republican activist and former Microsoft engineer. He was born and raised in Mexico, and later immigrated to the United States after attending college in Canada.

If Celis falls short against the well-funded DelBene, Republicans are optimistic about a potential challenge from state Sen. Andy Hill in 2016.