For local Democrats intent on taking back Congress, most of this campaign season has been spent pinning high hopes on Darcy Burner, the Eastside mom and former Microsoftie who is challenging freshman Republican Congressman Dave Reichert in the 8th District. Burner has out-fundraised Reichert for three consecutive reporting periods, she's caught the eye of national party leaders and bloggers, and she's running in a district that pollsters have long said is ripe for a Democratic takeover. Lately, however, with political observers suggesting the Democrats are in an increasingly strong position heading into the November elections, local party insiders have begun talking up an additional Washington House race as a potential Democratic pickup—this one in much redder territory east of the Cascades.
In that race, liberal cattle rancher and wheat farmer Peter Goldmark is challenging freshman Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris for the House seat from the 5th District, a huge swath of Eastern Washington that encompasses 12 counties, thousands of square miles of forestland and farming communities, a large Air Force base, and the city of Spokane.
"Peter is somebody who has a broad appeal throughout his district and a strong grassroots connection to the rural areas outside of Spokane," says Kelly Steele, spokesman for the state Democratic Party. "He's somebody who understands the rural issues and understands the way the Bush administration has ignored the needs of farmers and ranchers."
Like Burner, Goldmark has been out-fundraising his opponent, bringing in more cash than McMorris in two consecutive reporting periods. In the period ending in June, Goldmark brought in $200,000 to McMorris's $126,000. And in the period ending in August, Goldmark widened the gap, bringing in $305,000 to McMorris's $161,000.
As with the Burner-Reichert contest, the Goldmark-McMorris race finds the Democrat still considerably behind in the overall money totals; after a blitz of introductory commercials, Goldmark has about $280,000 left on hand to McMorris's roughly $540,000. But Goldmark's backers say he has the money momentum now and, just as significantly, has a message of economic populism that connects high oil prices with the depressed wheat-farming industry—a message that could easily synch up with growing anti-Bush sentiment to flip the seat back into Democratic hands after 12 years of Republican control.
If that were to happen as part of a wider wave of Democratic pickups this November, it would be a sweet bit of synchronicity, say Democrats. The 5th District seat was once safely Democratic, held by former House Speaker Tom Foley for 30 years until the "Republican Revolution" of 1994, when a wave of Republican victories (similar to the wave some are predicting this year for Democrats) brought the relative unknown conservative George Nethercutt into power. Nethercutt then held the 5th District seat for 10 years before vacating it in 2004 to make a failed run for the Senate against Patty Murray. That departure set up the 2004 contest in the 5th District between McMorris, a self-styled humble farmer, and her Democratic challenger, Don Barbieri, a successful Spokane businessman. McMorris thrashed the well-known and well-funded Barbieri by 20 points, a walloping that Democrats are now using to make the argument that the route to power in the 5th District runs not through the Spokane establishment, but through the rural farmlands.
Hence, for his campaign kickoff, Goldmark rode into Spokane on horseback, and for his opening campaign commercial, the set was his 8,000-acre cattle and wheat ranch in Okanogan County (no mention was made of his PhD in molecular biology or his postdoctoral studies at Harvard). The message: Goldmark is independent in politics and disposition, while McMorris has voted 98 percent of the time with the Republican leadership in Congress.
The only poll released in the race so far is a push poll conducted by the Goldmark campaign in July. It showed that Goldmark, unsurprisingly, had low name recognition. But it also showed that Bush was very unpopular in the district (getting only a 43 percent approval rating) and that 62 percent of respondents said they would consider voting for someone other than McMorris. It also showed that once people learned more about Goldmark, he was essentially in a dead heat with McMorris. That suggests to Goldmark's advisors that if he can keep raising enough money to get himself introduced to voters, he has a strong shot at taking the seat.
McMorris hasn't aired any of her own commercials yet and so far has stayed pretty quiet. But she has the bigger war chest and Dan Beutler, her spokesman, says that once her campaign gears up, voters are going to hear a different story. When McMorris hits the air, Beutler says, "it's not going to be just a Democratic pollster on the phone with an individual giving the Goldmark line."