Three WA Congressional Races that Explain Current Washington Politics

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

With Democrats holding a 7-3 advantage in Washington’s House delegation, the Evergreen State has three races for Congress worth watching this year.  Each contest tells something about how we do politics here, and one contest displays a growing fissure in the dominant Democratic Party.

An overview of the 3rd, 8th, and 10th District races begins with topography. In a phrase credited to ex-Secretary of State Ralph Munro, the best perspective on our state’s political divisions can be had from the top of the Space Needle and the summit of Old Snowy.

When scaling the Needle, you gaze out on population centers that vote Democratic, the views stretching out just over the crest of the Cascades.  From the 7,900-foot summit of Old Snowy, second highest peak in our Goat Rocks Wilderness, you see views of both Central and Southwest Washington.

3rd District encompasses Southwest Washington.  Historically Democratic with its unionized mill towns, the “rust belt” district is trending Republican.  George W. Bush carried it, and Donald Trump won here in 2016. Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler flipped it in 2010 when Democrat Brian Baird retired, and held on in 2018 by a six-point margin against WSU-Vancouver political scientist Carolyn Long.

The 3rd features a rematch this year.  Herrera Buetler is a low-key legislator who stopped holding face-to-face town meetings early in her tenure. She experienced a genuine scare in 2018.   The 3rd went from “Safe Republican” to “Likely Republican” to “Leans Republican” in a succession of national ratings.  Last-minute money flowed to Long.  The challenger carried Clark County (Vancouver), the district’s population center. The rural reaches of the district – and massively Republican Lewis County — reelected Herrera Beutler.

One of just 22 Republican women in Congress, and the only GOP Latina, Herrera Beutler has not been caught napping.  She has a crack constituent operation.  She has made a point of making common cause with Democratic colleagues, notably cosponsoring a bill with Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., to kill salmon eating sea lions at Bonneville Dam.

On Monday, Herrera Beuter posted a Tweet: “I’m pleased to partner with @RepKatiePorter on the bipartisan legislation to ensure new parents will have the flexibility to enroll their infant in health insurance and focus on what’s most important – the health and well being of the mom and their new child.” Katie Porter, elected in California’s once-Republican Orange County, is a star of the Democrats’ Class of 2018.

Long was both candidate and missionary in 2018.  She held town meeting after town meeting in areas long neglected by the Democratic Party.  Gov. Jay Inslee is rarely seen in the rust belt.  GOP gubernatorial challenger Loren Culp carried Cowlitz and Grays Harbor Counties in the August primary.

The coronavirus has put a crimp on the challenger.  Long is more skilled than Herrera Beutler at face to face contact, contact curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Nor has she adjusted and updated her message from 2018, on why voters should fire a more active Herrera Beutler. Long will need a Democratic tsunami to win in the lone Republican-held West Coast district (outside of Alaska) that touches on the Pacific Ocean.

10th District is known as the “Denny District,” created in 2010 redistricting for retiring U.S. Rep. Denny Heck by carving out Democratic parts of Thurston County (Olympia) and running east up the South Sound.  The state’s “top two” primary has yielded a general election contest between two Democrats, ex-Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and State Rep. Beth Doglio.

The Democrats’ divisions are on display.  Strickland is supported by party grandees – ex-Govs. Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire, and former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks – as well as by moderate House members Derek Kilmer and Susan DelBene.  Strickland is backed by the Congressional Black Caucus.  If elected she would be Washington’s first African American House member, and the first Korean-American woman in Congress.

The argument for Strickland:  She is whip smart, an accomplished coalition builder, and would quickly become a player in Congress.  Denny Heck while representing the 10th, served on the House Intelligence Committee, helped rescue the U.S. Export Import Bank, and recruited Democratic House candidates in 2018.

 Doglio hails from the left-activist wing of the party, and is backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Seattle’s Rep. Pramila Jayapal.  She supports the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all.  She has a background as campaign director at Climate Solutions and founding executive director of Washington Conservation Voters and director of Washington Conservation Voters.

The rap against Strickland is that she is too pro-business, stemming from her post-mayoral job as executive director of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.  As head of the Chamber, “Strickland worked last fall to help their PAC spend millions of dollars backing a slate of more conservative, business-friendly candidates,” in words of the Progressive Voters Guide put out by the activist, labor-supported Fuse Washington.

And that pro-business record may be just fine with some 10th District voters.  The district is not as liberal as this D vs. D race makes it appear.  The national rating groups, such as the Cook Political Report, rate it as D-plus-5.  Heck scared off any strong Republican challenge, resulting in two Democrats competing in the general election for the Congressional seat.  With a high turnout year, there will be a block of moderate Republican voters, forced to choose a candidate, who might gravitate to Strickland.

We will see more such contests.  The “Berniecrat” wing of the Democratic Party misfired this year with scattershot challengers to Reps. Kilmer and Rick Larsen, candidates who cheered on the Capitol Hill occupied zone in Seattle.  Rep. Adam Smith, in the 9th District, blew away left opponents in 2016 and 2018.  Doglio is the most credible hope of the “blue-green” left of labor and environmental activists.

8th District crosses the state’s political/ideological divide known as the “Cascade Curtain.” For the first time since created in the 1980 census, the district is represented by a Democrat, Rep. Kim Schrier.  An Issaquah pediatrician, Schrier won the seat of retiring Rep. Dave Reichert by carrying south and east King County.  She won a respectable 43 percent of the vote in Chelan and Kittitas Counties.

She has been running – and driving – for the past two years.  Schrier has copped a seat on the House Agriculture Committee, held 58 town meetings, and taken up such causes as the Yakima Basin Enhancement plan, which would store and supply more water for both irrigation and salmon. With a war chest of nearly $5 million, she has introduced the issue to Western Washington voters in a TV commercial.

The 2018 race cost millions of dollars and involved a multiplicity of interest groups and front groups.  The Republicans found a way to go negative on a pediatrician by depicting her as a taxer.  Schrier inflicted a fourth defeat on Dino Rossi, on political turf he had carried in contests for Governor and U.S. Senate.

The Republican candidate in 2020 is Jesse Jensen, a former program manager at Amazon and ex-staffer to U.S. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.  He is a former Army captain who won two Bronze Stars in Afghanistan.  He has stressed GOP themes of less regulations, lower taxes, with a modest amount of Seattle bashing.  He supports President Trump.

The 8th District, as now configured, will never be secure for Schrier.  In the August primary, Jensen and fellow Republicans took 49.2 percent of the total vote, Democrats including Schrier 47.6 percent.  Still, it is difficult to see any Trump supporter winning a House district that includes chunks of King County.  Trump lost King County by a 500,000-vote margin in 2016.

The boundaries of the 3rd, 8th, and 10th Districts will be reconfigured based on results of the 2020 Census.

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