National Republicans and Democrats are closely watching southwest Washington's 3rd Congressional District this year, thinking U.S. Rep. Brian Baird's decision to retire at the end of the year instantly turned a Democratic-leaning seat into one that either party might capture.
Six candidates are running during a year of tea-party tempests, economic anxiety and double-digit jobless rates in most of the district. This is giving Republicans and outsiders a certain appeal while the Democrat-run Congress and administration try to coax the economy out of a recession, while trillions of dollars of government debt piles up nationally.
So far, the three Republican candidates — state Rep. Jaime Herrera of Ridgefield, financial planner David Castillo of Olympia and ex-Marine David W. Hedrick — have been catering to the anti-government, anti-tax and anti-spending element. So has the independent, Norma Jean Stevens of Ocean Park, who runs a small business that provides cash-flow help to other businesses.
The two Democrats — political insider Denny Heck and anti-war activist Cheryl Crist — are not exactly wrapping their arms around the agenda of President Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress. Heck has criticized what he saw as a lack of focus in the federal economic-stimulus effort last year, and his support for the national health- reform law came with reservations; Crist wants the U.S. to end its overseas military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan while also moving toward a single-payer health care system.
Many national analysts say the race is a toss-up as Republicans try to win as many as 40 seats to regain control of the House. Under the state’s top-two primary system, the two candidates with the most votes in the primary move on to the Aug. 17 primary.
“I think the Democrats gave us an opportunity here. It is one of the few districts in the country that is even (odds), which is good,” said Joanna Burgos, regional spokeswoman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, which is holding back overt support for any of the GOP hopefuls before the primary.
“In a year like this, it is an opportunity when you have a district with a large amount of independent and moderate voters, Republicans are able to appeal to a lot of those voters. … Our message of curbing spending and lowering taxes is something independents are leaning toward,’’ Burgos said last week.
But Democrats aren’t giving up the 3rd District without a fight. State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said his party has held the seat for 46 of the past 50 years (exceptions were in 1994 and 1996 when Linda Smith, a well-known lawmaker, won after pushing a state initiative campaign to rein in spending). Pelz said the 3rd has become a swing district, but he described Heck as “a moderate Democrat who is going to appeal to our historic, sort of blue-collar base in the district and to the growing suburban base of the district.”
Speaking last week on the eve of a state party convention that began Friday in Vancouver, he added: “We don’t take it for granted; it’s going to be one of the top races in the country, one of the most hotly contested and closely watched races in the nation.’’
Pelz said the party was firmly behind Heck and convention delegates nominated him as the party’s candidate over the weekend.
State Republican Chairman Luke Esser said the state has two swing district races — the 8th District with GOP Rep. Dave Reichert facing Democrat Suzan Delbene in the eastern suburbs of King County and the 2nd District with Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen challenged by Republican John Koster in Snohomish County.
But the 3rd is what Esser calls “the most favorable for Republicans” to win in Western Washington. George W. Bush won the 3rd in 2004, even though he lost statewide by about 7 percentage points, and Dino Rossi won it in the 2008 governor’s race even though he lost statewide by about 6 percentage points, Esser said. Voters in the district also favored Tim Eyman’s tax-control measure last year that failed statewide.
So far, Heck is outdistancing all of the candidates in fundraising, but he loaned his campaign $250,000, pushing him nearly to $570,000 by the end of March. Crist is running a low-budget campaign but could use that fact as a contrast with Heck’s ties to the Democratic establishment and powerful donors.
Among Republicans, Castillo got started first – in April 2009, when Baird looked likely to seek a seventh term. Herrera quickly surpassed him in fundraising with $197,000 at the end of March. Castillo had $162,731.
Herrera also has the backing of her former boss, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, and Secretary of State Sam Reed. Reed said he thinks it’s important to elect someone who has actually served in a legislative body and made decisions to vote on tough issues, which he said Herrera has done since her appointment to her 18th District House seat three years ago.
But Castillo, a former subcabinet-level appointee to the Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs agencies under President George W. Bush, is surprising some watchers and has a story to tell about growing up poor and moving beyond the social programs that helped his family. He has backing of state Attorney General Rob McKenna; state House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt, his former boss at the state Capitol; FreedomWorks, a group with ties to the tea-party movement; the evangelical Faith & Freedom Network; and locally by Tenino mayor Ken Jones.
Hedrick, a veteran, got plenty of YouTube attention after facing down Baird in an August town hall meeting last year, and he also won plugs from the hard-right Fox News personality Sean Hannity.
The independent candidate in the race, political newcomer Norma Jean Stevens of Ocean Beach, is pushing “tea party” themes about taking back the government “for the people” and against what she perceives as runaway spending. Stevens said on her website that she is a 47-year-old Saint Helens, Ore., native who runs a small business, Prestige Funding, that provides “accounts receivable financing to other businesses to help with their cash flow problems.’’
Of the Republicans, Castillo has been the most active in laying out his positions, and he’s used the strongest rhetoric – accusing majority Democrats of socialism. Castillo also has pledged to repeal the national health-reform law and not raise any taxes; he favors Arizona’s new law requiring local police to arrest people in the country illegally, a position Herrera also supports.
“The issues haven’t changed since I started last April,” Castillo said before a joint appearance with Herrera at the Thurston County Mainstream Republicans luncheon two weeks ago in Lacey. “People are concerned about the spending and the national deficit.”
Castillo had hammered at Baird last year on several issues, a tactic he quickly aimed on Heck in January. But in his joint appearance with Herrera, Castillo went after her, too – trying to paint her as the more liberal of the two GOP frontrunners. He told the lunch crowd of Republican moderates including Secretary of State Reed that Herrera, in effect, supported organized labor’s agenda by co-sponsoring a bill in 2009 that let child-care operators unionize.
Herrera replied that it was legislation that child-care operators in her district asked for; it let the centers bargain for better reimbursements from the state for the care of low-income kids.
Herrera said she would always vote her district’s interests and not cave in to what party leadership might want her to do.
Castillo also questioned Herrera’s vote to spend the state’s rainy day fund reserves this year, claiming the move opened the door to more spending by majority Democrats in the state House. Herrera said she knew the Democrats would spend the money; she wanted to avoid having the Legislature approve even more tax increases than what Democrats did pass. Herrera then questioned Castillo’s character, asking what kind of person would distort her positions in that way.
T.M. Seth, who leads a Thurston County landlords group, watched the Castillo-Herrera “debate” and said, “I’m favorably disposed to both of the candidates. One represented a little more experience, and the other represented a bit more assertiveness.’’
But Seth didn’t get much of an answer when he asked the candidates to identify specific cuts they would make as lawmakers to reduce federal spending. Castillo said there are too many government agencies, but neither Republican offered up big savings. Instead, Seth noted, each candidate mentioned a border fence and other policy changes that would add what he estimated at $5 billion to $10 billion in spending.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been watching that Castillo-Herrera tussle, and it’s been keeping track of what it considers missteps or hypocrisy. Andy Stone, a DCCC spokesman, said Herrera criticized the 2009 federal stimulus bill yet voted in the state Legislature to spend money on stimulus projects in her district.
Stone declined to say how much financing the campaign group might put into backing Heck but said: “We are paying very close attention and pleased to be able to work with a leader like Denny Heck who has decades of job creation experience in Washington state.’’
The NRCC is similarly watching Heck, hoping to force him to take positions on climate change legislation and other Democratic bills the GOP claims will kill jobs. The differences between the two Olympia Democrats in the race — Heck and Crist — are pretty stark. Both are worried about jobs, but each has a much different life path and political orientation.
Heck is the insider with a lot of political connections — as ex-chief of staff for former Gov. Booth Gardner, co-founder of the TVW public affairs network, and former state House majority leader from Vancouver. He has endorsements from Baird, Gardner, Gov. Chris Gregoire and other party heavyweights, and he used his own personal wealth as an investor and business owner to stake his campaign war chest, and he has referred to himself as the only practicing “capitalist” in the race.
From the moment he got into the race, Heck has said the campaign is about jobs in a district that has the state’s highest jobless rates. “I don’t think we get to a healthy economy again until the private sector has been able to create these jobs,” Heck said in an interview in January, offering more specific policy ideas than the other candidates on how to use policy to create jobs.
Among his suggestions were investment tax credits. He said they could provide incentives for businesses to purchase equipment. If those were for items that create jobs on an ongoing basis, the credits can help restore the manufacturing base, which he said has been “obliterated.’’
Crist is more of a party outsider who pushed for Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaign in 2004. She is a former financial consultant for a major brokerage firm, school teacher, and real estate seller.
Crist wants to create what she calls clean-energy jobs, but her small-budget campaign also is focused on ending U.S. involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and broadening health reform to include a single-payer system.
The six candidates for the open 3rd Congressional District seat are participating in a forum from 7-9 p.m. Thursday, in Olympia. The event is open to the public at The Olympia Center. Sponsors include The Olympian, the League of Women Voters of Thurston County, and Thurston Community Television in partnership with TVW.
Olympian publisher George LeMasurier is moderating the event. The panel of questioners includes Brad Shannon, political editor of The Olympian; Clydia Cuykendall, president of the Thurston League of Women Voters; and Deborah Vinsel, chief executive for TCTV.
Questions are being supplied by readers of The Olympian, and other questions are being taken the night of the forum.