Olympia Democrat Denny Heck led Republican establishment candidate Jaime Herrera by a whisker in early vote returns Tuesday night in the nationally-watched 3rd Congressional District race.
Returns showed Republican David Castillo and three other candidates – Republican David Hedrick, Democrat Cheryl Crist and Independent Norma Jean Stevens – further back.
The top two vote-getters move on to the Nov. 2 general-election ballot under Washington’s “top-two” format. It means Heck, the insider politician-turned-entrepreneur, will face Herrera, the state representative who got into the race with the backing of her political mentor and former boss, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.
The seat became competitive last December after six-term U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, a Democrat, said he would retire.
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“I’m cautiously optimistic. I feel good about being in first place at least for the time being. We think these numbers are going to change over the next day or two,” Heck said, adding that his goal was to qualify for November and he’s done that.
Heck noted that new state jobs data show the urgency of his campaign message about creating jobs, which he hopes to spur through targeted tax breaks and other policies. He said Clark County’s jobless rate is now 13 percent, the highest in the state.
“It looks pretty darn good. Denny Heck and I are neck and neck and I’m going to be in the top two,” Herrera said of the early returns. It appeared to her voters were saying “they are tired of the federal government spending their hard-earned money hand over fist and they want someone who is going to focus on restoring jobs to southwest Washington.”
Herrera’s strong performance showed Democrats face a tough fight to hold on to the swing-district seat. The two Democrats were capturing just about 40 percent of the vote as of 9 p.m. returns.
“There was considerable speculation that the 3rd has become a more Republican district. … This would be evidence of that,” Secretary of State Sam Reed, who supports Herrera, said.
National Republicans say Baird’s seat is “a target” but they have not been willing to say it is one of the 40 they need to win if their party is going to recapture power in the U.S. House in November. The 3rd district is one Democrats have held for most of the past half-century – despite its reputation in recent years as a swing district.
Heck was the biggest political name in the race. He is a former state lawmaker who later served as chief of staff to Gov. Booth Gardner, founded the TVW network and became wealthy through high-tech investments, which gave him his campaign platform as a jobs creator. He collected just over $1 million, including $350,000 of his own money, as of July 28 — more than double Herrera’s $410,629.
Herrera, an up-and-coming Republican state legislator from Camas, was the Republican establishment’s favorite. Herrera had spoken against the federal economic stimulus package of 2009, which Heck supported with misgivings that it wasn’t targeted enough; Herrera also opposed the Wall Street and health-care reform measures, both of which Heck supported.
In other closely watched races Tuesday:
• Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert was getting nearly half the vote. In second was Democratic frontrunner Suzan DelBene.
• In the 9th Congressional District, Democratic U.S. Rep. Adam Smith was easily fending off two Republican challengers. Dick Muri, a Pierce County councilman, was qualifying in second.
• In the 6th, Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks of Belfair easily led Republican challengers. Doug Cloud was second and advances to the November general election.