House Races Heating Up

Primaries Shape Competitive Districts

Posted September 15, 2004 at 6:05pm

Soon after declaring victory in the 27th district Democratic House primary Tuesday night, New York state Assemblyman Brian Higgins hopped on a plane to Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday morning, he attended the House Democratic Caucus breakfast, where he was greeted with a loud ovation, then followed up with a fundraising brunch. Then he was back on a plane to Buffalo for another fundraiser.

Higgins’ frenetic money chase reveals just how much work the Democrats need to do if they are to take back the seat being vacated by Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.). The personally wealthy Republican nominee, Erie County Comptroller Nancy Naples, had $615,000 in the bank on Aug. 25, after seeding her campaign with a $200,000 loan.

Higgins, who had to dispatch four opponents in Tuesday’s primary — including one who was wealthy — had $169,000 on hand three weeks ago.

New York’s 27th district is one of three highly-competitive House contests that formally took shape after Tuesday’s primaries. The other two were in Washington’s 5th and 8th districts. National Democrats see all three Republican-held seats as golden pick-up opportunities.

“Combined they serve as a reminder that the [national] playing field is decidedly in our favor,” said Greg Speed, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We’re playing offense while they’re playing defense.”

But Republicans remain outwardly confident that they can hold all three, pointing to the quality of their candidates and, in Washington’s 5th district, a playing field that tilts to the GOP.

In all three races, the pace intensified dramatically this week.

In New York, the DCCC began airing ads on Higgins’ behalf Wednesday, while the candidate restocked his campaign treasury.

In a district that votes Democratic despite Quinn’s hold on the seat, the DCCC spot emphasizes Higgins’ commitment to programs like Social Security and his opposition to tax cuts for the wealthy.

Higgins, who ran TV ads for the final weeks of the primary, is expected to begin airing his own spots again as early as today.

“We’re firing right away,” said Chuck Eaton, a Higgins adviser. “We just need to keep the commerce machine running.”

Higgins also will benefit from a Democratic unity event in the district that is tentatively scheduled for today.

But Naples, who had no challenge for the nomination and has spent the last few months raising money, appears ready for the fight. She began her third round of ads on Monday and expects to be on TV through Election Day.

“It’ll be good for us now that the primary is over,” said Cam Savage, Naples’ campaign manager. “People will now start to focus on this race. There have been all sorts of primaries here — Democratic primaries.”

Washington: Celebrity Triumphs

In the Spokane-based 5th district where Rep. George Nethercutt (R) is moving on to run for Senate, state Rep. Cathy McMorris handily won a three-way GOP primary, taking 49 percent of the vote. She’ll face wealthy businessman Don Barbieri (D) — who, like Naples in New York, starts with a substantial financial advantage.

And in the 8th district, which covers the Seattle suburbs and exurbs, two well-known political novices won their primaries in the race to replace retiring Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R). Radio talk show host Dave Ross easily won the three-way Democratic primary, and King County Sheriff Dave Reichert prevailed in the four-way GOP contest.

The Democratic-leaning 8th district, like New York’s 27th district, is considered a true tossup. But the NRCC was quick to release a poll Wednesday showing Reichert with a comfortable lead over Ross.

The Public Opinion Strategies poll of 300 likely voters conducted Sept. 7-8 found Reichert preferred by 52 percent of the respondents, compared to Ross’ 36 percent. The survey had a 5.7 percent margin of error.

Both candidates had remarkably high name recognition — 76 percent for Ross and 83 percent for Reichert, who is well-known for bringing the so-called Green River killer to justice.

“It comes as no surprise to me that the man voters remember for tracking down the Green River killer and for personally chasing down looting protesters is the same person they want in Congress,” said NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.).

Reichert’s campaign said Wednesday the primary results show their candidate appeals to Republicans as well as independent voters.

Early speculation was that if the state’s new, and highly unpopular, primary system kept voters away, it would hurt candidates like Reichert and Ross who only declared a party affiliation to run for Congress and would not be the choice of fierce partisans.

“Among very dedicated Republicans [Reichert’s] support is just as strong as it is among those who consider themselves independents,” said Kevan Yalowitz, Reichert’s campaign manager.

Looking to November, Yalowitz said that despite the two candidates’ relative “fame” he believes the men are very different.

“There is a stark difference between Dave and your typical politician and that’s what makes him unique,” Yalowitz said.

Then he took a subtle jab at Ross’ 26 years in talk radio.

“Reichert is about action — all of his life he has taken action — his record of leadership is more than just words,” Yalowitz said.

Reichert did not run television ads during the primary but Yalowitz promised a media blitz for the general election, though he declined to say when it would start.

The Ross campaign is also bullish about its chances.

“He spent his public career debating issues and that is what will make him a definitive candidate against Dave Reichert,” spokeswoman Dana Slote said. “Dave Ross’ in-depth political experience puts him leaps and bounds ahead of Dave Reichert. We’re cautiously optimistic.”

Ross also bypassed television advertising in the primary but is expected to take to the airwaves, though to what extent Slote could not yet say.

Neither Reichert nor Ross was the best-funded candidate in his respective primaries.

Reichert ended August with $90,000 in the bank while Ross only had $23,000 cash on hand.

A national political operative in Washington, D.C., predicted that this race would be slower to develop than most, because both candidates are political novices. He also said that independent groups would become very active in the district and would likely be on TV before the candidates themselves.

Washington’s 5th: Money vs. Party

Meanwhile, in the 5th district, McMorris will benefit from the area’s Republican lean. The district gave George W. Bush a 16-point cushion in the 2000 presidential election, and Nethercutt has held the seat easily since upsetting then-Speaker Tom Foley (D) a decade ago.

But some Democrats have run competitively in the district, and Barbieri, unlike McMorris, comes from Spokane, the district’s population center. He was sitting on $504,000 as of Aug. 25.

McMorris “is a very smart, sharp woman who very quickly, and at a young age, rose through the ranks as a Republican leader in the state House, demonstrated an ability to get things done and has a command of the issues,” said Bo Harmon, a spokesman for the NRCC. “We feel good about this race.”

The committee is already running ads against Barbieri, a former hotel chain magnate. But Barbieri quickly ran spots defending his business record, and the DCCC went on the air there Tuesday.

At least one Republican operative thinks McMorris will have a tough time keeping the 5th district in the GOP column, despite it’s voting patterns. Jim Dornan, a Beltway-based consultant who worked for one of McMorris’ primary opponents, said McMorris will suffer because she comes from a rural part of the district, and he said that Barbieri’s response to the NRCC’s TV onslaught has been impressive.

“They nominated the weakest Republican candidate,” Dornan said.