Ever since rumors started circulating over the weekend that 14-term Congressman Jim McDermott would be retiring, there's been a flood of candidates who are in various states of thinking about maybe jumping into the race.
This is the list of the most likely contenders right now (in addition to state Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, who started campaigning before McDermott retired):
Joe McDermott, King County Council member
David Frockt, state senator representing the 46th legislative district
Jenny Durkan, former U.S. attorney who is now practicing at a private firm
All solid progressives; none of them particularly inspired firebrands.
That's notable not just because this is Seattle—a fast-changing city that seems to get more progressive with every election cycle—but because of the timing, too. This will be the year Democrats in blue enclaves like Seattle grapple with whether they support Hillary Clinton's establishment pragmatism or Bernie Sanders' populist revolution. It will also be the year voters across Washington state could weigh in on a higher minimum wage, statewide sick leave, and carbon pricing. And it will be the first truly competitive race for this seat—the 7th Congressional District, representing much of Seattle, Shoreline, Edmonds, and Vashon Island—since McDermott was first elected in 1988.
In other words: In 2016, Seattle will send a new face to Washington, D.C. and the stars seem aligned to make that someone who's farther left than anyone we've sent before. But so far, that's not what's happening.
In an effort to understand just who's considering a run for this seat, who has the best chance of winning, and why, I spoke to ten politicians, consultants, and others close to this race. Most of them were reluctant to speak on the record, but a few things came up over and over again.
• While Joe McDermott says he's still thinking about whether to run, most people expect him to definitely jump in. Frockt and Durkan are also strong possibilities. Everyone else people are talking (or whispering) about is a wildcard, with just as many reasons they might get in as reasons they might stay out.
• A candidate will need to raise somewhere around $1 million to make a viable run for this seat. As the only one already formally in and with more than $200,000 raised in his first month, Brady Walkinshaw has a clear advantage.
• None of the four most likely contenders has a strong anti-establishment or outsider identity. They're likely to agree on many federal policy issues. Absent a few nuances, like Walkinshaw's relative lack of experience, their résumé make them all pretty equal in terms of viability for the seat.
• Walkinshaw, McDermott, and Durkan are all gay, meaning they'll be left to split what several sources called Seattle's "gay money" as well as support from high-profile LGBTQ groups. Again, Walkinshaw—who's also close with Ed Murray, a longtime state lawmaker before becoming Seattle's first gay mayor—has a head start on that fundraising.
The bottom line: If most or all of those four enter the race and everyone else stays out, it'll be a hard-fought but pretty boring race. Then, whoever wins is likely to be there awhile. Another McDermott.
"In Seattle if you are progressive enough and do—not even a good job, do a halfway decent job and show up," one source told me, "people are really unwilling to challenge the status quo."
Things get a lot more interesting when we consider the firebrand side of Seattle politics. Who could emerge to represent the city's far left, to offer a counter to establishment politicians and carry the banner of the increasingly left-of-the-left progressives we've seen in other recent local races? And could someone like that even win in a district that's deep blue but also includes a few more moderate suburbs?
Kshama Sawant's name tops the list, but she's being coy about whether she's actually interested in the run and it looks unlikely. Electing a candidate to Congress would be a huge coup for her party, Socialist Alternative, and—again considering Bernie Sanders' candidacy—what better year to try? But it would take a massive effort and it's not clear why Sawant would be interested at this point. Not only would the party have to divert its attention away from the policies they want to work on (rent control, an income tax) and toward fundraising and campaigning efforts, they would also have to do so with limited resources after just finishing an ugly fight to get Sawant reelected to city council. Plus, Sawant would have to spend her time convincing people both in the city and in more moderate suburbs like Burien and Shoreline that they should elect a socialist to the U.S. House of Representatives. It's not impossible, but it's unlikely.
Pramila Jayapal—an activist who's both close to Sawant and active in the Democratic party—will make an excellent Congressional candidate someday. But she's deeply connected to her district, which covers southeast Seattle and is not included in the 7th. Most political consultants I asked said they expect Jayapal to wait until she can make a run for the 9th Congressional District, which covers that part of the city and is currently held by Adam Smith. Jayapal didn't return a request for comment.
What about former mayor Mike McGinn? McGinn would benefit from massive name recognition and a loyal force of campaign volunteers and fundraisers left over from his mayoral run. Given his history with the Sierra Club and his fight against the downtown tunnel, he'd quickly become the environmental candidate. You could make a similar argument for Mike O'Brien, though O'Brien has less name recognition than McGinn. McGinn hasn't returned my request for comment. O'Brien seems uninterested, saying in a text: "I was just elected to [a] new term at council and am excited for it and feel it's the best place for me to continue working on issues [that are] most important to Seattle right now."
Robert Cruickshank, a senior campaign manager at Democracy for America and former McGinn staffer, says candidates for the 7th should focus on the issues that are coming up in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination like the Trans Pacific Partnership, college tuition and debt, and banking reform. They should also consider taking the more populist path of a candidate like Bernie Sanders.
"All of these candidates are going to have to demonstrate to Seattle voters why we should be excited about them," Cruickshank says. "None of them should assume their résumé is going to get the job done."
Newly elected Seattle City Council member Lorena González could also do well in a Congressional race—one source referred to her as someone who should be "told in the media" to consider a run—but she has only been in her new job at City Hall since late November. González hasn't yet returned a request for comment.
Ultimately, we could see as many as six to 10 serious contenders for this seat. Turning back to the non-firebrand list, some other possibilities include:
Rod Dembowski, King County Council member
Reuven Carlyle, state representative for the 36th district
Raj Shah, former staffer at the Gates Foundation who then worked in the Obama administration at the Department of Agriculture and then as the head of USAID, where he coordinated U.S. response to Ebola
Gerry Pollet, state representative for the 46th district
Jessyn Farrell, state representative for the 46th district
Courtney Gregoire, Port of Seattle commissioner
The importance of fundraising in federal races favors establishment Democratic party players with new momentum (like Walkinshaw) or who've been patiently waiting their turn for the seat (like Joe McDermott). But the current political climate in Seattle and nationally could offer an opening for a strong populist candidate who could come to champion the labor and environmental community. The question remains: Who will that be?