So I've been out in Bellevue, WA for the past few days, puzzling over a mystery. Why at this moment is every single Democrat - from Obama to Jim Martin in Georgia to Tom Perriello in Virginia to Eric Massa in New York - rising in the polls except for Darcy Burner? The latest polling on the race - 49-41 in Research 2000- is probably off by a few points, as it undersamples cell phones and probably oversamples Republicans (Obama is up by more than 4 in this district). But there's no denying it, even in her best poll, she's down by at least 3 points. Why? And is this trend of rising Democrats everywhere but WA-08 likely to continue?
The conventional wisdom is that Reichert is a very strong candidate, a local hero, and a moderate. Unlike most Republican politicians, Reichert made his political bones via a Lifetime-style saga, capturing the legendary Green River Killer after a 20 year investigation. As a nonpartisan sheriff, Reichert was a local hero, and is fondly remembered as as a nice and sincere cop. His actual record is quite mixed; he was the sheriff of King County during the 1999 IMF protests, and many people think that 20 years was a ridiculously long time to find a serial killer. There are also allegations of police corruption and brutality, but by and large, his heroic image resonates strongly with the blue collar voters, whose economic basis was logging, coal mining, and manufacturing until quite recently. And as you can see from the photo above, Reichert heavily cultivates this image, working out so often that he looks like a 25 year old body builder that likes to wear muscle t-shirts.
The district is shifting rapidly to a progressive suburban tech-savvy area, but it's not yet strongly Democratic. There is the South of the district; think of the setting in the first Rambo movie, and that's the environment we're talking about. And the King County area, while tech savvy, has other attributes which make it less likely to go Democratic than you might think, in particular the economy, which is doing well.
Reichert was absent without leave from good sense during the worst periods of the Iraq War. We will never agree with his anti-choice views. But he has shown a willingness and capacity to hear opposing positions, to learn from the discussions and to work across political divisions. As a Republican of moderation, he is an endangered species worth preserving.
This endorsement comes from some smart strategic choices by Reichert's campaign, which is extremely well-run. His campaign manager (and former Chief of Staff) Mike Shields is a highly intelligent and capable political operative who is part of Newt Gingrich's political apparatus. For the past two years, Reichert has positioned himself to the left of his caucus, moving his League of Conservation Voters score from the low 40s to a respectable 85. Reichert, who has in the past been fairly aggressive about women not having access to birth control, has even gone so far as to butter up Planned Parenthood, citing a bill he's cosponsoring making it cheaper to purchase contraceptives, and arguing in the most debate when asked about Roe v Wade that his views don't matter because Congress has no role in dealing with abortion.
The strategy has worked. Green groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace have replied in kind by cozying up to him, as have newspapers like the PI. Shields has effectively taken a lot of liberal infrastructure offline in this race, including education groups, while convincing far right groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, the NFIB, and the NRCC that Burner is a far left creation of the netroots, bringing in an additional million and a half to two million into the race. This extreme right partisan tinge belies Reichert's aggressive positioning as a moderate who works with both parties in Congress; he frequently refers to his work with the Blue Dogs. He has a Democrats for Dave group run by Jim Vaughn, an old and somewhat cranky conservative Democrat who ran against Burner in the primary on a platform of winning the war in Iraq.
From Darcy's side, her position as a young woman without a public service background challenging a local hero hamstrings her ability to communicate. Chauvinism is huge in this race; this ad from 2006 showcases Reichert's strategy of framing Darcy as a stupid ditzy blonde, using terms like having 'no experience' to give voters a reason to reject a young woman running for office. And look for him to continue this line of attack.
Despite writing a Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq and managing an extremely important initiative for Microsoft (project managing the .NET initiative), voters, Burner has trouble convincing even progressive voters that she is competent to represent them and can get things done in Congress. Unlike the 'he man' stereotype of Reichert or 'fighting Dem' vets, there's no simple archetype that fits a young woman with tremendous success in a technology business being ready to take on national security challenges. This email from a 'progressive' in the district referring to her as 'highly confrontational' and a 'low level manager at Microsoft' is about par for the course, though at least this man didn't call her a glorified secretary. Her strategy has been organized around communicating with women through innovative glossy magazine-style direct mail pieces and an extensive field campaign. Her campaign, like Reichert's, is extraordinarily well-run.
Still, none of this can really explain why Republicans in every other race I've seen are sinking, and Democrats are doing better. Well, not every single one. There is one big exception, and that is the Dino Rossi versus Christine Gregoire contest in Washington state, for Governor. It's interesting that this race and Darcy's are both in Washington, and Obama's not quite the same lift in this state as he is elsewhere in the country. This map in fact helps explain what is going on here.
That big green dot in the upper left part of the map is Seattle, which is actually doing relatively well economically compared to the rest of the country. This region is heavily dependent on export led growth and resource extraction, both of which have done well in a time of a weakening dollar and high commodity prices. Just two months ago, Gregoire was still bragging about the number of jobs she had helped create as a reason to reelect her, a striking difference between the rest of the country and this area.
There are more stats that bear this out; housing prices are only 6.9% below their peak in Seattle, one of the best performances of any city in the country (Portland, OR is better on housing values, but its economy is not doing well). Seattle is also the single best metropolitan area in terms of number of recent home buyers who are under water, at 11%, and housing is still substantially overvalued here. In other words, the bubble hasn't popped in this area, and so the impact of the financial crisis has been different.
The Seattle PI's endorsement, when seen in this economic light, looks different.
In the 8th Congressional District, Eastside and neighboring voters have a race that is more competitive than most, with two capable candidates. For those of us who think that there should be strong reasons to kick out an incumbent trying to represent a diverse district well, Dave Reichert is the choice for re-election. We also think that preserving and encouraging the development of a rare voice of moderation within the Republican Party is important at a time of almost unremitting polarization.
We would be perfectly comfortable with his opponent, Democrat Darcy Burner, who is smart, well informed and progressive. Her views are much closer to our own on domestic and foreign policy, and we supported her in 2006. But this is not an ideological choice.
While in most of the country these are extraordinary times, in the Seattle area it's business as usual with a pretty good economy. In normal environments, there needs to be a reason to kick out an incumbent, and Reichert just has not had any scandals. He's just kind of inept, but that's not enough to fire him. That's what the PI rests its case on, even going so far as to say that Darcy is more in tune with their ideas and would be a good Congresswoman.
Now, will this trendline continue? Perhaps, but there are good reasons to think that Reichert's in more trouble than it seems. Here's today's Seattle Times.
Reichert is not solid on the economy, with hard right credentials and a record of supporting private accounts for Social Security. That's not really important, though, the question is simply whether the economic collapse is going to begin moving voters here the way that it has in the rest of the country. That's not clear, but a 35% haircut in the stock market, the recent sudden collapse of local banking giant Washington Mutual, and a strike in the local Boeing plant has gotten voters here talking. And the sooner voters here join the national conversation about the financial panic, the larger a likelihood the district swings towards Burner.
I'll be watching signs of economic activity in this region, as well as further polling.