Robert Ullman

If you think the presidential race has begun early this time around, try the race for Congress in the Eastside's 8th District.

There, Darcy Burner, the Democratic darling who narrowly lost to Republican Congressman Dave Reichert during the "blue wave" of 2006, has been itching for a rematch. She basically took a look at her election results last November—a loss to a well-known incumbent by just a 3 percent margin—and kept right on running, toward 2008.

With still more than a year to go before Eastside Democrats anoint the next Reichert challenger through their primary process, Burner is pressing hard to again be the Democratic nominee, and she has about $185,000 on hand to fund the second chance that she wants. That's an impressive amount of money, and more than Reichert himself has in his campaign account; he reported about $160,000 on hand when the second fundraising quarter ended last month.

Plenty of triumphal noises were coming out of the Burner camp after those fundraising figures were released two weeks ago. ("Wow," Burner said in a press release. "I never expected to be ahead of Congressman Reichert so soon.") But first things first: Before Burner can take another shot at Reichert, she has to prevail over her Democratic primary challenger, state Senator Rodney Tom, who announced on July 17 that he wants to be the one to try to unseat the two-term congressman.

"I think that I fit this district and I think I can be a tougher opponent for Reichert," Tom told me recently. "I'm the candidate who can win the general election."

Tom kicked off his campaign in Renton in an attempt to underscore what he thinks is his greater viability in a key part of the 8th District: the south. Running from Duvall in the north to Mt. Rainier National Park in the south, the 8th District is a huge swath of land that happens to be in a period of political flux, with demographic trends making it more friendly territory for liberal candidates. But the southern half of the 8th District (places like Covington, Maple Valley, and Black Diamond) remains far more conservative than the northern half, and although Burner's 2006 "Southern Strategy" helped her do better in the southern part of the 8th than any other Democrat has ever done there, it wasn't enough for a win. Tom, who served two terms as a Republican state representative before switching parties last year and making a successful run for the state senate, thinks his Republican past can help him win over more conservatives in the southern areas than Burner did.

"I was a Republican more by default," says Tom, who grew up in a Republican family. "I can get the Republican-by-default voter who is disgusted with Bush on the war."

Maybe. But before he can try, he has to get the nod from Democratic primary voters—who are not likely to be welcoming to a candidate who brags about his Republican past and has a considerable record of financially supporting Republicans and voting for their issues in Olympia.

For Democratic primary voters, Tom is going to downplay his time as a Republican while touting a political résumé that's longer than Burner's and suggesting that she's already had her chance and failed. It's unclear how either of those arguments will resonate, or if they'll even be heard under the din of a well-funded Burner campaign. (Tom says he'll catch up with Burner in the money race, but that would be quite a feat, given her huge head start.)

The Burner campaign is eager to paint her as the inevitable nominee. Sandeep Kaushik, Burner's spokesman, emphasizes Burner's name recognition and money, and won't even say Tom's name when he talks about the race.

"In terms of her values and her priorities and her positions on the issues of the day, Darcy Burner is more in line with the people of her district," Kaushik told me recently.

In a way, it's appropriate that the Burner campaign is trying to talk as if Burner's primary opponent doesn't really exist. The first questions that Democrats looking at this race will ask themselves are likely to be all about Burner, and Burner alone: Why didn't she win last time? What makes her think she think she can win this time? What, exactly, has changed about her political experience since 2006, when her relatively short résumé became a huge subject in her race against Reichert?

Kaushik says Burner will be reintroduced to 8th District voters in an effort to answer these questions.

"For all the success that the campaign had last time, and for all the name recognition she has, I don't think people really got a sense of who Darcy Burner really is," he says. recommended