December, 11th 2009

WA-3: Baird's retirement: Why it happened, what it means and what will happen next

– Liz Mair

On Wednesday, Democratic congressman Brian Baird, who is currently in his sixth term representing Washington’s Third District, announced that he would not seek re-election in 2010. 

It was a move that immediately kicked off a flurry of speculation, specifically because his statement regarding his retirement offered no explanation, express or implied, as to why he would not be seeking re-election, noting simply that:

“The time has now come to pursue other options, other ways of serving.   Hence, I am announcing today that I do not intend to seek reelection to Congress in 2010.  This is not an easy decision to be sure, but I believe it is the right decision at the right time.”

Baird later clarified that his reasons for retiring were entirely personal.  Speaking to the  AP’s Matthew Daly, he said “I find it is increasingly difficult to spend the time I need with my family and at the same time do the job that needs to be done," and indicated that his decision was not motivated by the prospects of a potentially tough 2010 re-election.  Per the AP, Baird said "I am quite confident I would win re-election," while underlining that he’d been in the business of running for Congress for 14 years, beginning in 1995.  He most recently won re-election with 64 percent of the vote.  Baird, who is the father of young twins, reiterated that "This is right time for my family, and I will find a new way to serve the country in the future."

Republicans, unsurprisingly, are not buying this—and have been eager to depict the move as one entirely dictated by politics, irrespective of Baird’s comments.  Washington State Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser opined in the aftermath of the announcement that Baird “saw the writing on the wall: 2010 is going to be a very rough year for Democrats." 

National-level Republicans have proven eager to concur.  National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman (NRCC) Rep. Pete Sessions said of Baird’s retirement that it “should send an alarming message to the Democratic Party… it speaks to the shifting political environment that has led another multi-term Democrat to opt for retirement rather than face the oncoming political headwind.”  Sessions added that “With this being the third retirement by a swing-district Democrat in as many weeks, it is clear that members of the Majority are feeling the ground shaking beneath them,” and pointed to Democrats’ failures to keep unemployment in check and prioritize transparency as problems that had provoked Baird’s action.  Democrats (including Baird) may view this as overselling with some justification.  But the fact remains, 2010 was likely to present a tougher than normal re-election battle for Baird, even as an entrenched incumbent, and certainly one that given his desire to spend more time with his family, might not have looked terribly appealing.  This is arguably so because of the dictates of his district and the political circumstances that for better or for worse, he has crafted for himself as a congressman. [intro]

Observers unfamiliar with Washington State may find the assertion that Baird’s district could be “tough” for any Democrat surprising: The Evergreen State, to outsiders, looks pretty dark blue at the best of times, and Baird’s district sits in the Western portion of it, which is decidedly more liberal.  To understand the dynamics at play in Washington’s Third, though, it is important to consider a couple of specific attributes it has that distinguish it from the rest of the state, and specifically, Seattle—a place that a lot of people in the Third view with a certain amount of disdain.  The bulk of the district resides in Clark County, which has for a long time now served as a refuge for commuters who work and play in Portland (just across the Columbia River) but who wish to avoid paying Oregon’s income tax (Washington, for now, anyway, does not have one).  Clark County, in part for these reasons, is largely viewed by local Republicans as neutral to Republican-friendly—anecdotal evidence certainly suggests that it is more fiscally conservative than, say, King County, the major metropolitan center of the state.  Much of the rest of the district is composed of small towns and is somewhat rural—and also tends to be a bit more conservative than the rest of Western Washington. 

This is arguably part of the reason why, prior to Baird’s election in 1998, the district had been held by Republican Linda Smith (who ultimately relinquished it with her run against Sen. Patty Murray in 1998).  This is, incidentally, when Baird, running for the second time, won with 55 percent of the vote—a total just a few points better than Rep. Dave Reichert (Western Washington’s lone Republican, who represents the Eighth, and whose district persistently features on “top target” lists maintained by both the NRCC and the DCCC) has tended to amass.  In sum, the Third ain’t the Seventh— and Vancouver ain’t Seattle.

It is also presumably why, as the Cook Political Report (subscription required) notes, the Third gave President Bush 50 percent of the vote in 2004.  It also voted for Bush over Gore in 2000 and gave Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi just over 50 percent of the vote in 2008 (in the state as a whole, Rossi garnered about 47 percent). 

So, it should not be fertile territory for anything other than a conservative or moderate Democrat, at least.  And while Baird is tough to describe as a dogmatic liberal (in 2007, he co-sponsored immigration legislation supported by Tom Tancredo; he supported the Iraq surge; he voted against health care reform earlier this year), he’s not exactly a Blue Dog, either.  Baird garnered the same rating from Americans for Tax Reform with regard to his votes on fiscal matters in 2007 as did Jim McDermott, Seattle’s esteemed Representative, generally regarded as a liberal’s liberal.  Though Baird switched his position on the Iraq War, ultimately supporting the surge, the fact remains that he was one of 100 or so House Democrats to vote against the original Iraq War resolution.  During the health care debate this summer, he veered into Rep. Alan Grayson-esque territory when he told the Columbian newspaper that he would not do in-person town halls because of protestors employing “close to brown shirt tactics.”  When he did eventually hold one, it became the subject of a YouTube video featuring an angry, disabled Marine veteran that has been attracted nearly 1.3 million YouTube viewings, as of the time of writing. 

In short, Baird has not had as easy a ride of it in recent years, given his unique positioning within the Democratic Party, as some of his colleagues.  This is despite him having racked up respectable wins at the ballot box ever since he was first elected and having taken some stances that are easy to respect, for Democrats and Republicans alike (the major one that springs to mind is his support for ensuring that all major bills are posted online for at least 72 hours prior to being put to a vote).  His retirement leaves everyone asking, what comes next?  The short answer is, a contest that looks like it could become one of 2010’s most-watched races.

On the Democratic side, there are a few names being tossed around already, including Craig Pridemore, a State Senator and ex-Clark County Commissioner, Brendan Williams, a State Representative who represents liberal Olympia (also in the Third), and Deb Wallace, a State Representative who has already announced that she will run to replace Baird and who has a record of winning in all-important Clark County.  The DCCC seems to be lining up in favor of Wallace, who may cut something of a Bill Richardson-esque profile, at least in two respects: She is reportedly well-regarded by both the NRA and environmental groups.  DCCC Chair Chris Van Hollen described her as a “terrific candidate” in an interview with Politico.  Other national-level Democratic operatives have said they like their chances with regard to holding on to the seat, while hinting ata Wallace candidacy.

Van Hollen’s early praise for her may signal an effort to immediately rally around an anointed contender—undoubtedly a smart move, given the nature of the district and the toll that a nasty intra-party fight could have on Democrats’ ability to hold onto the seat.  However, it is worth noting that Wallace, like the two other possible contenders, is still unlikely to have an easy ride to next November.  First, she is likely to have to take a vote on a budget expected to emanate from Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire’s office in January which will almost certainly contain hefty tax increases unlikely to play well in a district that is obviously less liberal and more tax averse than, say, Seattle.  Moreover, the NRCC already has her in its proverbial crosshairs, with spokeswoman Joanna Burgos commenting yesterday that Wallace “will be just another tax-hiking, job-killing Democrat.”

The NRCC, however, may have a different problem on its hands.  While Burgos’ statement also indicated nothing short of glee at Baird’s retirement and the “excellent pick-up opportunity” it has created, the Republican field is more cluttered than the GOP might like.  State Rep. Jaime Herrera, a young Latina, indicated within hours of Baird’s announcement that she would run to replace him—and several Republican operatives I have spoken with, both within the district and at the national level, are clearly excited about her candidacy and view her as someone who can beat anyone that Democrats coalesce behind.  However, David Castillo, himself a young, minority candidate, a veteran and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Veterans Affairs Department, has already been in the race for a couple of months.  Meanwhile, other candidates considered substantially less viable, but nonetheless who Washington Republicans say are potentially capable of making nuisances of themselves, remain in the race.  Of those I have spoken to, a few more place money on Herrera winning Republicans' support than Castillo—but it’s worth noting that while both look appealing to many Republicans, they share a common attribute that Democrats will be keen to exploit: Their professional associations with the national-level Republican Party (which polling suggests continues to be seen as unpopular by many voters), and their service in the Bush administration, specifically.

Will any of that matter?  With President Obama’s approval ratings falling, sustained concerns on the part of voters across the country about jobs and the economy, and Washington voters especially cognizant of Democratic fiscal failings (Washington, under Gregoire, has managed to amass a $2.6 billion shortfall, which has many Evergreen Staters, even self-described liberals, worried about fiscal mismanagement and tax increases, including the potential floating of the income tax idea with real seriousness), it feels like the initial momentum will sit with the Republicans, in one way or another.  Of course, an unnecessarily nasty intra-party fight could change that, just as competition between Democrats to replace Baird could also shift the balance further in the GOP’s favor.  One thing seems certain: This will be a race to watch—Cook has now re-rated the seat “up for grabs.”


[Note: After initially posting this, I edited some language to better reflect Washington's "top two" primary system-- the text above is updated].


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