For a face-off between two moderates, the 3rd Congressional District general election race is already shaping up as quite the slugfest.
The contest between Democrat Denny Heck and Republican Jaime Herrera for the chance to represent the 3rd District – which includes much of Thurston County – has been on the radar of both political parties for months. One of 10 House races in the nation ranked as toss-ups, it promises to be both expensive and rancorous.
Republican and Democratic campaign committees began lobbing charges and countercharges in the race Wednesday morning, even as ballots still were being counted.
On Thursday, the conservative pro-business group Americans for Prosperity began running TV attack ads against Heck in a $180,000 ad buy. And the party campaign committees are expected to dump buckets of money into both campaigns over the next 70 days.
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“We’ll see a large investment on both sides, even though we haven’t seen the Republicans put money on this race quite yet,” said David Wasserman, who tracks and handicaps House races as an editor at Cook Political Reports in Washington, D.C. “They’re focusing on cheaper districts right now. They can’t necessarily afford to buy media in the Portland and Seattle markets.”
The national attention the race has grabbed isn’t surprising. It has been a dozen years since the Southwest Washington House seat has been open, with no incumbent running.
Plus, Rep. Brian Baird’s announcement in December that he would not run for a seventh term came just as Republicans, bent on taking control of Congress next year, began mounting an all-out election year offensive.
Washington’s 3rd, which has swung from Republican to Democratic in the past two presidential elections, looked ripe for the picking.
A herd of hopefuls – six Republicans and four Democrats – initially announced plans to run for the seat. But the field shrank quickly as the demands of fundraising sank in.
The primary itself eliminated two tea party-affiliated Republicans, David Castillo and David Hedrick, and Democrat Cheryl Crist of Olympia, a progressive peace activist, as well as political novice Norma Jean Stevens, an independent.
That left Heck, a 58-year-old former state legislator from Clark County and semi-retired Olympia businessman, who won 31.5 percent of the vote, and Herrera, a 31-year-old state legislator and former congressional staffer, who came in second with 27.7 percent.
Both are campaigning on the need to revive the 3rd District’s struggling economy and create jobs. Heck cites his experience at creating jobs in the private sector. Herrera, who has a background in health care policy, has adopted the Republican party line and is calling for steep reductions in federal spending.
“They are both establishment candidates,” said David Ammons, communications director for Secretary of State Sam Reed and former longtime Associated Press political writer. “There is a great comfort level for Denny among Democrats in the district. He is very tight with the Gregoire Democrats. And Jaime Herrera is clearly well-liked by moderates and establishment Republicans like Sen. (Slade) Gorton and my boss and others who feel she has the ability to reach across the aisle for votes. She has a very pleasant, nonbombastic style about her.”
“I would say they are in the political center,” Ammons said. “They will be trying to consolidate their own bases. Many voters are in the middle. Party allegiance is always tenuous in the 3rd. We saw the same district voting for (George W.) Bush and then (Barack) Obama. People are looking for candidates who share their concerns. Their party label means less than the attributes to they bring to the table.”
Neither candidate has obvious skeletons in the closet. During his career as a legislator, Heck focused on educational policy. He founded TVW, a public affairs station that has contributed to civic involvement in state government. He has been a successful business developer since leaving the public realm a decade ago.
Herrera has a three-year voting record as an elected official, during which she consistently voted with the Republican caucus in opposition to new taxes.
That gives the national party campaign organizations little to work with.
Republicans have sought to tie Heck to the Obama administration and the voting record of a Congress controlled by Democrats. Democrats, meanwhile, have parsed Herrera’s voting record.
For example, on Friday, the National Republican Campaign Committee put out a hit piece blaming Heck for Washington’s 8.9 percent unemployment rate.
“Denny Heck has stood by his Democrat friends in Washington and continues to support their partisan spending addiction,” the NRCC said.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hit Herrera for supporting spending $141 million in federal stimulus money on transportation projects last year to help alleviate the effects of the economic downturn and create jobs for the unemployed.
It’s possible that Democrats will exploit Herrera’s youth and relative inexperience. Republicans have already tagged Heck as an “Olympia insider” – a label that could be seen as an asset or a liability, depending on one’s point of view.
As the general election campaign gears up, pundits still are trying to read the tea leaves in the primary results.
The most obvious predictor is in the numbers that show Republicans enjoyed an enthusiasm edge. Taken together, Herrera, Hedrick and Castillo won 53.6 percent of the vote, to 42.6 percent for Heck and Crist. That’s an 11 percent, or 17,430-vote, advantage for Republicans going into the general election. (It’s not clear who the 3.8 percent who voted for Stevens might support.)
Again, that’s not surprising. The three Republicans in the race drew most of the media coverage. Democrats might not have been as motivated to return their ballots.
It’s clear that Heck, despite his fundraising prowess (he has raised $1 million, counting the $350,000 he has contributed to his campaign), faces an uphill race. He’s unlikely to attract many votes from the right. He’ll need to count on a larger voter base in the general election.
Seattle pollster Stuart Elway cautioned last week that the primary election does not necessarily predict what will happen in the general. Primary voters tend to be older, more established and more partisan, Elway said.
Ammons said the November ballot will attract far more interest than the primary.
BY THE NUMBERS
Statewide, Democrat Denny Heck had 31.5 percent of the vote in the race to replace U.S. Rep Brian Baird as of Sunday; Republican Jaime Herrera had 27.7 percent.
Heck, from Olympia, fared better in Thurston County, getting 39.3 percent of the vote compared with Herrera’s 18 percent.