District 3's politics promise doozy of a race

While voters across the state soundly defeated a Tim Eyman anti-tax measure and, by a narrower margin, supported the rights of same-sex couples in November, voters in the 3rd Congressional District had other ideas.

By a small margin, the 3rd District backed Initiative 1033, Eyman’s proposal to cap government tax collections. And by 6 percentage points, the 3rd District defeated Referendum 71, which extended rights to elderly and same-sex couples similar to those given to married couples. The district includes most of Thurston County, where voters backed R-71 and didn’t support I-1033.

The numbers, released this month by the Secretary of State’s Office, are further evidence that the district can be fickle about its politics – and why political pundits say next year’s battle to replace outgoing Congressman Brian Baird will be a donnybrook that could become the most expensive campaign in state history.

“The 3rd District is definitely a swing district and definitely in play,” said Dwight Pelz, the chairman of the Washington State Democratic Party. “I think this is going to be one of the most closely watched congressional races in the country – on both sides.”

Democrats have controlled the congressional seat all but four years in the past half-century, and Baird likely would have coasted to victory if he hadn’t decided against seeking a seventh two-year term.

But despite more liberal values in Thurston County, the entire district’s core political values are more conservative than that congressional track record would indicate. In addition to its conservative leanings in November, the district went for George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, then turned to Barack Obama last year.

Pelz predicted that next year’s race could be the most expensive in the 3rd District’s history. He declined to speculate how much money might be spent.

State Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser said Republicans felt confident going into the race when Baird was still a contender. Now, he said, “I’m liking our chances all the time.”

Minority parties typically gain seats in off-year elections. Esser said money probably will pour into the district during next year’s race and that “they eyes of the nation will be on the 3rd Congressional District.”

Democrats no longer can take their 3rd District seat for granted, said David Ammons, a former Associated Press reporter who covered state politics for decades and who now works as a spokesman for Secretary of State Sam Reed.

The district, he said, is “socially and fiscally conservative” and is home to plenty of “Reagan Democrats.”

If Republicans run a “strong candidate who is able to reach independents,” they could pick up the seat, Ammons said in an e-mail. “It is clearly on the radar screen.”

Pelz said Democrats, in turn, know they have to nominate a moderate candidate who “can speak to all of the people of the 3rd Congressional District.”

Esser said the November votes on taxes and gay rights indicated that the district is “trending more conservative and trending more Republican.”

“This is not your father’s 3rd Congressional District,” he said. “It’s an area where, generally, Republicans and conservatives have been outperforming the statewide averages. It bodes well for our candidate come November.”

But Pelz said he doesn’t think that’s the case. He noted that two-thirds of the district’s voters live in suburban metro areas (particularly Thurston and Clark counties), which typically lean Democratic and favored President Obama by wide margins last year. Clark County by far accounts for the biggest share of voters in the district, which includes Skamania, Cowlitz, Wahkiakum, Pacific and Lewis counties and part of Thurston. Nearly half of the 3rd District votes cast in the November general election were from Clark County.

Pelz also said he didn’t think that by returning Baird to Congress for six terms, the district had mysteriously favored a representative who was more liberal than his constituency.

“Brian understood the 3rd District like the back of his hand,” Pelz said. “He had a gut feeling for the 3rd District.”

There’s no question Baird wasn’t afraid to rile his Democratic base by taking more conservative positions. He supported President Bush’s troop “surge” in Iraq. And although he said he favored reforming the health care system, he voted against the House bill in November, saying it was unclear how it would affect insurance costs.

Baird’s spokeswoman said he was unavailable for interviews last week.

Pelz said a winning Democratic candidate will have to be similarly “fiscally conservative” and “pragmatic.”

“We will nominate a candidate that’s in touch with the values of the district,” he said.