Committees Send Help to Washington’s 8th

Posted October 25, 2004 at 6:48pm

For a race that pits two high-profile candidates not previously wed to a particular party, the tight contest for Washington’s 8th district seat in the eastern Seattle suburbs has become a battle between national Democrats and Republicans.

Both Congressional campaign committees have dispatched their big guns to raise money and stump on behalf of talk show host Dave Ross (D) and King County Sheriff Dave Reichert (R). Both are spending millions to air television ads in the expensive Seattle market, and both have reiterated the importance the open 8th district plays on the national map.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) even lent Ross her press secretary.

“It’s funny to watch that campaign,” said Jim Keough, a Washington state Republican campaign consultant who is not involved in the race. “On both sides it seems everything is being directed back east; it doesn’t have a homespun feel to it.

“People already have a mind-set with these folks and to have D.C. tell us Reichert is wrong on abortion and Ross is weak on terrorism doesn’t seem right,” Keough added.

Keough was referring to the $2.15 million the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has committed to ads seeking to paint Reichert as too conservative for the suburban swing district and the more than $2.7 million the National Republican Congressional Committee has reportedly earmarked for ads implying that Ross is soft on defense because he wants to cut the $100 billion missile defense program.

Both Ross and Reichert started the campaign being known by an impressive 80 percent of King and Pierce county voters. Neither had previously pledged fealty to a political party — the sheriff’s position is nonpartisan — and both held broad appeal for independent and unaffiliated voters.

Nevertheless, the late Sept. 14 primary combined with both candidates’ sluggish early fundraising and a dearth of competitive House races around the country made them prime party targets.

Through Oct. 13, Ross had spent $720,000 on the race and Reichert had spent $786,000.

Both camps, however, play down their dependence on the national parties to spread their message and win the seat.

John Mathis, on leave from a Washington, D.C., public relations shop to the Reichert campaign, simply said: “We don’t think it’s an issue.”

Dana Slote, spokeswoman for Ross, said Ross appreciates the outside support but insisted that he ultimately retains control.

“We recognize that they are involved but also, as you know, that we can’t coordinate,” Slote said. “We’re appreciative of the support that they and others are able to provide us, but we feel very much in control of our own campaign. People know Dave Ross is a straight shooter and independent voice.”

By all accounts the race is not only a top target, it is also neck and neck.

Partisan polls have shown the race skewing toward the pollster’s party, but everyone agrees it is tight.

“Washington 8 is a tossup,” admitted Bo Harmon, spokesman for the NRCC.

Slote said that the most recent poll — conducted for Ross — showed him leading by 10 points but acknowledged: “We expect that to tighten.”

Keough, the GOP consultant, said that regardless of the volume of third-party ads, both candidates are sufficiently well known that the result will come down to the quality of their ground games.

“Since you have two people who are really well known, it’s going to come down to who in the district is going to turn out,” he said.

Keough contends the district is still Republican: “Democrats say this is their year to win the 8th; every year they say that and they’re 0-11.

“It is becoming more and more Democratic in some regards but it is still a Republican district,” Keough said.

Democrats disagree, noting that while Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R), who is retiring, made it look easy for the Republicans, the truth is the district has become more Democratic.

In 2000 it voted for then-Vice President Al Gore and helped propel Maria Cantwell (D) to the Senate.

“We know that the district is turning more Democratic and the Republicans recognize that, and that’s why they are putting so much money into it,” Slote said.

Reichert may also benefit from the fact that the Republican nominee for governor, state Sen. Dino Rossi, comes from the 8th district, and he will seek to maximize the GOP vote in his home turf.

Washington allows any voter to cast his or her ballot absentee so many voters have received their ballots already. Some say as many as 70 percent or even 80 percent of 8th district voters select absentee ballots, so both campaigns are focusing on those early voters.

“Republicans have a big program there, probably better than Democrats do,” Keough said. “We know who has voted and who hasn’t. The Bush campaign has been calling up people who haven’t sent in their ballots and telling them to turn them in.”

Not to be outdone, Ross’ campaign is employing a similar strategy.

“We don’t know how they vote, but we know when they’ve turned in their absentee ballots,” Slote said. “We’re reaching out to those folks, finding out what information they need to make their decision and following up with them. Democrats are more focused on individual contact.”

While most attention is being paid to the 8th district, Democrats warn against writing off the open 5th district race.

“Everything we see says this race is tightening; we think it will go down to the wire,” DCCC spokesman Greg Speed said of the contest to succeed retiring Rep. George Nethercutt (R) in the vast expanse east of the Cascade Mountains.

Nethercutt has held that seat for 10 years, but Democrats have been very high on hotel magnate Don Barbieri.

Recent polls show state Rep. Cathy McMorris (R) with a substantial lead, but Speed said he is not ready to give up yet.