David Belisle

In late February, in a cavernous gymnasium near Olympia, a record crowd gathered for the Washington State Democrats' annual crab feed. The event was billed as a fundraiser and rally, but during an election year it takes on another dimension as well. With its raucous audience of union members and precinct captains, the feed allows the party to measure grassroots excitement, and answer the question: Which candidates have momentum?

Among the 1,200 party faithful at the event, the mood was more optimistic than it has been in the recent past, buoyed by a sense that six years of Republican rule and Republican mistakes—from the fatally mismanaged war in Iraq to the failed response to Hurricane Katrina—may have finally turned the country against the GOP. The audience munched on seafood and seemed eager to shout for anyone carrying the liberal message, but one slogan clearly got the most attention. It was on the lips of most of the speakers, it was on the majority of placards waved by activists, and it was on the button that Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean wore on his lapel as he took the stage for the keynote speech:

"Darcy Burner for Congress."

In his speech, Dean dropped Burner's name more often than any other Democratic candidate running in Washington State this year. That's an unusually high-level plug for a 35-year-old woman who's never held elected office. But it makes sense: Dean is hoping to turn this year's widespread voter discontent into a Democratic takeover of both the House and Senate in November. While the 2004 presidential election was about the swing state, this fall's congressional elections will be all about the swing district, and Burner, a former Microsoft executive, is running in Washington's swing district par excellance, the 8th Congressional District.

Most of the people at the crab feed weren't residents of the district Burner wants to represent, but they cheered whenever she was mentioned. Their enthusiasm for a race they likely won't be voting in felt familiar: During the 2004 presidential election, many Washington Democrats, propelled by this same type of enthusiasm, flew on their own dime from safely blue Washington to volunteer in contested swing states like Ohio and Iowa. Their "Will Travel for a Win" attitude sprung from a recognition that national elections, be they for control of Congress or the presidency, turn on outcomes in relatively few locales. This year, however, Democrats in the deep blue cities of Western Washington don't have to go all the way to Iowa or Ohio. To be a part of halting the Bush agenda, they simply have to drive 15 minutes across Lake Washington.

The growing excitement about Burner's race has only been heightened by the fact that both of Washington's senators are already Democrats, and the only one currently facing reelection, Maria Cantwell, seems safely ahead of her challenger. That leaves Burner's attempt to unseat Republican Congressman Dave Reichert as the only Washington contest in which there's a realistic chance for a Democratic "pickup." Which is why, to many local Democrats, Burner's battle for the 8th District is the only race that matters.

After Dean finished his speech to a standing ovation, he stepped down from the podium and moved along a receiving line that included most of the state's liberal congressional delegation, as well as Burner. She and Dean shook hands and talked warmly. "How'd that go?" I heard Burner's campaign manager ask her as she walked away from the exchange with Dean.

"Well," Burner said, beaming.

* * *

Democrats need to wrestle 15 seats from Republicans in order to take back the House, and it's in places like the 8th District that they plan to do it. The district is a large and fast-changing area that encompasses suburban developments and rural farmlands, and covers the east side of Lake Washington as far north as Duvall and as far south as Mt. Rainier National Park. It has trended increasingly liberal in recent years, voting for Democratic candidates for president and Senate. On Tuesday, this increasingly liberal bent prompted state Representative Rodney Tom, who represents a part of the 8th District, to abandon the Republican party and declare himself a Democrat so that he could be more in line with his constituency. But since its creation in 1982, the 8th District has never sent a Democrat to the House.

In 2004, when longtime Republican Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn retired from her seat in the 8th District, Dave Reichert, having gained national fame for capturing the Green River Killer as King County Sheriff, shrewdly parlayed his name recognition into a run for Dunn's seat. He won a narrow, 4-percentage-point victory over his Democratic challenger, the radio talk-show host Dave Ross, but that same year the ticket-splitting voters in the 8th District also picked Democrat John Kerry for president and helped send Democrat Patty Murray back to the Senate.

Burner and her A-list crew of Democratic advisers think she can neutralize Reichert's tough-guy advantage, which they believe played much better against a lefty man like Ross than it will against Burner, an accomplished businesswoman educated at Harvard and raised as a military brat. With a recent Democratic poll of the 8th District showing support for Reichert at just 39 percent (the same as Bush's anemic national approval rating in a recent poll by Fox News) the Burner campaign plans to tether Reichert to the unpopular policies of Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress, and make Reichert spend the campaign explaining votes—against stem-cell research, for cutting student loans, against money to protect ports—that are out of synch with his mostly middle-of-the-road constituents.

"I think when people elected Dave Reichert they were hoping he would be a moderate," Burner told me recently over coffee at a Starbucks in Seattle, where we met after she'd finished a morning meeting with potential donors. Dressed in a power suit and pearls, and speaking with a poised assurance, she continued: "There has already been a tremendous disappointment in him. He has not been a moderate. He's been voting overwhelmingly with the Republican leadership."

At the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C., which supports House and Senate candidates around the nation (usually in proportion to their chances of winning), spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said Burner's race against Reichert is one that's being targeted.

"We think that Reichert is vulnerable," Bedingfield told me. "We think that he's out of touch with the values in the district and we think that Darcy Burner is a fantastic candidate."

While the Democrats see Reichert as beatable, conventional wisdom doesn't—not yet, anyway. On February 22, the National Journal, an influential D.C. publication for political insiders, published its list of the top 25 most vulnerable House seats. Reichert's seat wasn't on the list. But the list was presented as a work in progress and just a few days later the publication highlighted Burner on its blog, describing her as an overlooked "sleeper" candidate "who could surprise when the elections start heating up." That new analysis was based on Burner's strong fundraising start (she has raised about $350,000 so far), and Washington's history of confounding D.C. pundits.

Congressman Jay Inslee (D-Shoreline) places Burner's race among the top 30 most likely to produce a Democratic pickup in the House. "The whole Washington State delegation is committed to this race," Inslee told me recently. "If you want to know where one vote could make a difference, one vote out of the 8th District could make a difference this year."

Inslee knows intimately the power of voter discontent, having himself been swept out of Congress during the "Republican Revolution" of 1994, which gave Republicans control of both houses for the first time in 40 years. After that defeat, Inslee moved from Eastern Washington back to Western Washington, where he grew up, and in 1998 was elected as the Representative for the 1st District, which encompasses much of north King County, Snohomish County, and Kitsap County.

"There's no way to predict anything in politics, but right now it does look like there's the potential for a tsunami like the one we experienced in 1994," Inslee told me. "The conditions that existed then, I believe, exist now. The country is outraged at the ineptitude and incompetence of this administration."

Inslee says he's "very impressed" with Burner, but adds that if the electorate is demanding change, it may be enough for her to simply not be Reichert. "Once a tide like that begins to run," he says, "it doesn't matter what kind of swimmer you are, you can be swept out."

* * *

Darcy Burner was born in 1970 in Anchorage, Alaska, to a 19-year-old college student who wasn't ready to be a mother. She placed Burner for adoption through a Catholic charity, which arranged for Burner to be taken in by a local Air Force radar operator and his wife. Soon after, the family moved to Nebraska, where they settled in the small town of Fremont.

Fremont is Dodge County's biggest town, which meant that it had the county's only car dealership, its Wal-Mart, its Wendy's, and most significantly to the young Burner, its public library. Burner likes to joke that she was the black sheep of her family, more interested in Encyclopedia Brown books than in the makeup and dolls favored by her sister, who now works as a nurse, and more interested in computers than any of her three brothers. (One brother now works as a janitor in Olympia, another delivers beer for Anheuser Busch, and the third is a member of the 101st Airborne in Kentucky, just back from a tour in Iraq.)

Growing up, Burner devoured every title at the library and delighted in learning how to program the early Apple computers she had access to at school. For years she begged her father, who had retired from the Air Force and become a public school teacher, and her mother, who was raising the family's five children, to buy her a computer of her own. Finally, when she was 13, her parents, who didn't have much money, bought her a Radio Shack computer for Christmas. It cost $79, was called the Color Computer 2, and came with no software.

"Software's expensive, and my parents had planned on investing in this piece of hardware and that was it," Burner says. "And of course a computer without software doesn't do a whole lot. I needed at least a word processor."

Using the computer manual and her limited programming knowledge, Burner set about writing a word-processing program for herself on the Color Computer 2.

With the casualness of someone for whom that type of effort is easy, she told me, "You know, word processors are just a matter of understanding that you've got this big document full of letters. You want to move around and be able to change the letters. You want to be able to insert or delete, and then print out the results with basic formatting. I'm not saying it was Microsoft Word, don't get me wrong. But it was a good, basic word processor."

In high school Burner won a National Merit Scholarship. Not long afterward, she left Fremont to study economics and computer science at Harvard.

"It was a huge transition in many ways," she told me. At Harvard, "I could decide what I wanted to write a research paper on, and whatever topic I chose there would be books in the library on it. That sounds like a little thing, but in my small town in Nebraska we would choose our research topics based on what we could find materials on. And here I could research anything. I could find the experts in anything."

It was during her sophomore year at Harvard that Burner managed to track down her biological mother in California. She decided to take some time off from school to meet her birth mother and earn some more money.

"I think we were both terrified of what the other person would think," Burner told me. "There was a lot emotionally at stake. But it's been a terrific relationship. She's a wonderful, wonderful person."

While getting to know her birth mother and two biological half-sisters, Burner got a job in California working on UNIX systems, which are industrial-strength computer operating systems used by large companies, but found she needed a mentor to learn their complicated programs. She began corresponding by mail with a man named Mike who ran some of the computer systems back at Harvard, a man for whom she'd worked during a previous summer and had developed a "huge" crush on.

"I would send him these notes," she told me. "'Can you please explain to me how to install this kind of computer on this type of system?'"

And Mike, who it turned out had a crush on her too, would send instructions right back. It was computer-geek love. They married in 1993 after Burner returned to Harvard. When she graduated in 1996 the young couple set about beginning a family, both of them working in the booming tech industry.

Their first child, born that year, was premature and died from what Burner calls "a pretty clear case of medical malpractice." The experience was heartbreaking. "It has given me a very different perspective on a lot of things in life," she says. "It's one of the only things in my life that I haven't been able to fix by sheer will of effort. It's not fixable."

Eventually, the careers of Burner and her husband took them to the Eastside, where Burner managed a multimillion dollar budget for one of Microsoft's marketing initiatives. It was, in a way, a homecoming: Burner's father had relatives in Western Washington, and she was familiar with the region thanks to her family's frequent visits here during her youth. While Burner was at Microsoft she had another child, a son, Henry, who is now a healthy 3-year-old. Then, 18 months ago, she decided it was time to pursue her interest in politics and retired from Microsoft in order to focus on a run for Congress.

* * *

Last Tuesday, as we barreled through the 8th District in her hybrid SUV, Burner explained her "southern strategy." We were headed for a noon media event about energy policy that was being held in Kirkland, part of the more liberal center of the 8th District. It's precisely in these more urban and wealthy eastside enclaves—places like Kirkland, Bellevue, Medina, and Mercer Island—where Dave Ross won healthy majorities, and where Burner's liberal politics, fancy education, and tech experience should also serve her well. But it's among the voters in the southern part of the district—blue-collar voters in places like Enumclaw, Buckley, and Orting—where Ross fared poorly. Burner needs swing voters there. "If you win them, you win the race," she says.

To get those voters, Burner has hired the field-operations director from Patty Murray's 2004 campaign—which, unlike the Ross campaign, won in the southern part of the 8th District. And while she's not shy about showing the folks in Medina the Harvard side of her personality, she's just as eager to show the people in Orting her Nebraska side. When she campaigns down south, she says, she hears familiar concerns: health care, the cost of college, the loss of good manufacturing jobs. "The southern part of the district is what my family is like," she told me.

While Burner hopes to have raised $500,000 by March 31, Reichert already has almost $600,000 on hand. Burner can't afford to follow the Maria Cantwell model of bankrolling her campaign herself and perhaps knowing this, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is using Reichert's fundraising lead as its first line of attack against Burner. Their message: Burner may sound good, but she's not financially viable in an expensive media market like the Eastside.

The second Republican line of attack has to do with Burner's age and experience. "You have a contrast," says Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the NRCC. "Here's Dave Reichert, a 56-year-old former sheriff, a 30-year police-force veteran, the sixth freshman congressman in history to get a subcommittee chairmanship. And there you have Darcy Burner, who's a 35-year-old Microsoft project manager and a part-time liberal activist. With a resumé like that, people might start thinking, 'Why isn't Darcy Burner running for city council, getting a little bit of experience, and then trying to make a bigger step?'"

The Burner campaign is ready for that kind of condescending hit.

"If Republicans in Eastern Washington can elect a young woman to Congress, I believe Democrats in Western Washington can elect a young woman to Congress," says Burner campaign manager Zach Silk, pointing to 36-year-old Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris of Spokane.

As for Reichert's lead in the money race, Silk says that of the vulnerable Republican freshmen, Reichert has the lowest amount of cash on hand—despite receiving fundraising help from indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. He also says Burner is raising money at a good clip, and will be competitive in terms of media buys.

And Burner herself hits right back at Reichert's touting of his credentials as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Homeland Security. As chair, she says, Reichert has allowed several antiterrorism measures recommended by the 9/11 Commission—including giving first-responders the resources to communicate better in an emergency and distributing funding for homeland security based on risk—to languish without approval.

"He's not the solution, he's the problem," Burner says.

* * *

When she was finished discussing energy policy in Kirkland, Burner and I climbed back into her hybrid SUV. I sat in the back seat, in a spot usually reserved for her son's Buzz Lightyear doll. She sat in the passenger seat, eating a sandwich. Her brother-in-law drove. We talked briefly about religion (she was raised Catholic but now attends a Unitarian church in Bellevue); about her recent endorsement by NARAL (she was pleased); about how she would vote on the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage ("We have never amended the Constitution to take away rights from people, and I don't believe we ever should"); and about the potential cost of her race ($2 million plus).

We arrived at her modest campaign headquarters in a small business park near Redmond and our conversation turned to the question of how best to get Washington residents outside Burner's district to invest in her candidacy. It's something liberal bloggers like Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, who runs the popular website DailyKos, are encouraging Democrats around the country to do this year.

"Everyone, no matter how blue the area they live in, has a tough race somewhere nearby," Zúniga wrote on DailyKos in late February. "So think nationally, and even act nationally when the opportunity strikes. But don't forget to act locally as well."

When Burner is dialing for donations from outside her district, she says she tells people, "This is it. This is the only House race in play in this state this year."

She's noticed, as she's been making this pitch, that there are now two types of Democrats: those who are disillusioned by the last six years and just want to hibernate until 2008, and those who are in a fighting mood, ready to do whatever it takes to win back Congress this fall.

"We're starting to see a shift," she told me as she headed back into her campaign headquarters for another round of fundraising calls. "More and more people are getting into a fighting mood."