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September, 1st 2010

Democrats' Woes Captured in Two WA House Races

– Liz Mair

My piece yesterday at Red County:

At the outset of the 2010 cycle, both Republicans and Democrats were firmly focused on the same two Washington congressional races: Those in Washington’s Third District, and in Washington’s Eighth.  Democrats believed the Eighth, held by Rep. Dave Reichert—and one of the most competitive in the country—could be poached.  Republicans, meanwhile, had long considered six-term incumbent Brian Baird to be the most vulnerable Democrat in Washington’s congressional delegation; that was before summer 2009 and the health care debate, following which Baird announced his intention to retire. 

But now, two months away from Election Day, the situation has dramatically changed.  The Eighth no longer looks as competitive for Democrats, and both parties’ attention has focused in sharply on the Third. [intro]

This is partly the result of the overall 2010 dynamics.  Republicans look at opinion polls and see their star on the rise.  In a district held by a Republican like Reichert—who has never won an election with more than 52-and-a-bit percent of the vote, and whose district was carried by John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008—that means more insulation to an incumbent whom both parties have historically seen as vulnerable.  In Baird’s district, it likewise suggests a dynamic that will benefit Republican Jaime Herrera, and create more of an uphill battle for Democrat Denny Heck. 

However, there are other reasons why the Eighth looks as safe as it does to most observers this time around, and why the Third looks more contentious.

In every election cycle, regardless of which party is favored to come out on top, there are a few candidates against whom the decks are stacked but who pull out a win nonetheless.  There are also candidates who have the wind at their back and yet are not certain to perform the way their supporters would hope, because of the opposition they’re facing, their own campaign infrastructure, or both.  As it stands today, neither situation seems likely to describe the Eighth; both could, potentially, wind up describing the Third, depending on what happens over the next two months.

While Democrats say they remain confident about Suzan DelBene’s odds against Reichert—a source tracking the race and familiar with the DCCC’s views and plans in relation to it told me she is “running a strong campaign”—Republicans sense she will mount a weaker challenge to Reichert when push comes to shove than did Darcy Burner, his opponent in 2006 and 2008. 

Reichert fans point to the fact that DelBene had, as of the last filing deadline, spent about $780,000 according to OpenSecrets.org.  Yet, they say, she managed to poll just 27 percent in the state’s top-two primary earlier this month. 

FEC searches indicate that Darcy Burner, Reichert’s opponent in 2006 and 2008, spent close to the same amount ahead of the primary in 2006, but Burner actually bested Reichert back then by several percentage points. 

Reichert supporters run those numbers and smell a weak 2010 opponent; those who prefer DelBene argue that her focus in the primary was not beating Reichert, or getting close to him, but just ensuring she garnered the second spot on the November ballot.  Besides, Democrats say, there’s been inflation in campaign costs in recent years. 

Still, as of the last filing deadline, Reichert had about $100,000 more in cash-on-hand than did DelBene (about $1 million to her $900-or-so thousand), whose fundraising looks fairly anemic.  True, in campaigns, money is money—and as a partial self-funder, DelBene has a lot of it—but when 40 percent of a candidate’s financing has come via their own checkbook, and their opponent has seen more money flow into the coffers without having to contribute a penny, it is not something a campaign is inherently likely to cheer about.  That is moreover the case because in 2008, when Reichert won with just under 53 percent, Burner was forced to spend $4.3 million overall (Reichert, for his part, spent $2.8 million to beat her).

DelBene would have to write herself a sizeable check, and a bigger one than she has suggested she will, to put herself on equal financial footing to a well-known, second-time candidate who came close in a terrible year for Republicans, but ultimately lost, to eke out a win this time.  Nothing is certain in politics, but statistics like these should not comfort her, especially given that she is running in a media market where a week of advertising can easily cost about $400,000, and where her Seattle Times endorsement seemed to do little in the context of the primary.

By contrast, Denny Heck—the self-funding Democrat running in Washington’s Third—faces better circumstances, even if a SurveyUSA poll out last week makes for unpleasant reading.  Heck, who according to that poll, trails his Republican opponent Herrera with 41 percent to her 54 percent, as of the last filing deadline had about $700,000 cash on hand.  Herrera—a young, Hispanic female candidate with a profile Republicans love to tout— by contrast, had about $110,000.  

That money will go somewhat far in reaching voters in the population base of the district, Clark County: Buying ad time to cover Southwest Washington is hardly as pricey as buying time in expensive Seattle.  Nonetheless, pro-Herrera moolah remains something of a challenge, even with that buzz and the encouraging poll numbers that indicate her holding the aggregate total of Republican votes from the primary.  The NRCC has not publicly announced any intention to reserve ad time in her district thus far.  The DCCC, by contrast has—and it could well exceed the amount previously purchased by Americans for Prosperity, which recently invested about $180,000 in hammering Heck. 

When all the votes are counted, it is a safe bet that Washington’s Eighth will stay red.  What remains in question is whether Democrats can keep the Third blue, or whether the same trends seen elsewhere across the country—fired-up Republicans, Independents souring on Democrats, and perhaps Democratic base lethargy and indifference—will result in a Herrera win.  Washington’s Third remains the real race to watch as we head into the home stretch.

 

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