The Dems hoping to replace Reichert: (L-R) Robert Huntziger, Shannon Hader, Jason Rittereiser, and Dr. Kim Schrier
The Dems hoping to replace Reichert: (L-R) Robert Hunziker, Shannon Hader, Jason Rittereiser, and Dr. Kim Schrier Bill Harrington

Wednesday night five of the nine Democratic candidates currently running for congress in Washington's 8th district pitched themselves to a group of 80 people crammed into a room of the library in Graham, Washington. (I watched a video of the event from the comfort of my extremely overpriced studio apartment, so I could not verify the number of people there. I did, however, verify that there is a castle in Graham, and I hope organizers will host the next forum there.) Anyway! Though 80 people might seem like a low number by city standards, Bill Harrington—chair of the Flip the 8th Committee of the Second Legislative District Democrats—told me there was "standing room only" and called the evening "historic."

"We’ve never had multiple Democratic candidates get together south of Highway 18," he said over the phone.

Democrats are thin on the ground in the 2nd legislative district—which is located in south Pierce County and parts of eastern Thurston county—but not totally absent. "This is the country," Harrington said. "We have no urban center. No newspaper. No union offices to hang out at. No coffee shops. We're out here, but nobody has really reached out to help the rural Democrats."

But this year feels a little different to Harrington. He suspects there's a significant number of people in his district who are tired of Trump, and he thinks they might be willing to vote for a Democratic candidate—"but not the Democratic party"—in this election. The only question is: which one?

The answer is likely not Tom Cramer, but he still showed up to the forum with his trademark humongous name tag and in jeans/blazer combo anyway. He spent most of the evening testing everyone's patience by doing what he does best: disrespecting the time limit. His other two strengths included badly summarizing conversations he’d had with his friends in Iowa, and delivering lines that undercut the authority he was hoping to project.

Another newcomer who already needs to pack his bags is Robert Hunziker. The freelance tech worker showed up late, introduced himself as a Socialist (🌹 ), and said he was running on a message of "no corporate funding whatsoever, Medicare for All, and getting corporate funding out of our elections." I love my DSA brothers and sisters, I love Medicare for All, and I guess I hate corporate funding, but this guy stands no chance. His answers were vague, and he kept spouting weird "Our Revolution" talking points. He wasn't really running alone, he said, he was really part of a movement who yada yada yada. NEXT.

One newcomer who doesn't need to pack her bags quite yet but who does have some 'splaining to do is Shannon Hader. Hader officially jumped in the race earlier this year, much to my chagrin. But maybe she's great? Let's see.

At the forum she introduced herself as a scientist from Auburn who grew up on her grandfather's "old farm property." She's a trained pediatrician who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, first as a self-described "global virus hunter” and most recently as the head of the agency’s HIV/TB detail. In that position, she says, she oversaw 2,000 people across 45 counties with a budget of over 2.4 billion a year. She also claimed to have worked under Republican and Democratic Presidents. All of this experience gives her special insight about which bipartisan solutions can work, and a deep understanding of "where the federal government can work, should work, and could work" more generally, she said.

When asked to order her priorities, Hader named healthcare, the environment, and "overturning the tax changes for the middle class." She said she's for "universal healthcare," and claimed to only support single-payer in the states. If individual states adopt the system and do well, she thinks it would spread nationally. Not such a bad idea.

Though there isn't much distance between Hader and the other doctor in the race—Dr. Kim Schrier, who's raised the most money so far (she claims $600,000+) and who's now more or less seen as the front-runner—it's clear Hader wants to cast herself as the more practical choice, someone who already knows how to apply her global health experience in a government context.

But even if she does manage to meaningfully distinguish herself in that way, it's going to be hard to beat Schrier. She's recently scooped up endorsements and support from EMILY's List and the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (which represents 45,000 workers). During the forum she sounded way more comfortable, confident, and in control than she ever had before. And instead of spending time separating herself from the other Democrats, she chose to pretend that Dino Rossi, the only Republican candidate vying for Congressman Dave Reichert's seat, was her only real opponent. "I’m putting together the fundraising numbers to run ads on TV and to send out my message and to define myself before he defines me," she said early on in the evening.

But Jason Rittereiser, the prosecutor from Ellensburg whose dad was a cop, was making many of the same moves. Though he's currently losing the fundraising battle to Schrier by approximately $200,000, he spent the evening throwing a few jabs at Rossi, too. He reminded everyone that he's the economy guy who's going to fight hard to bring more jobs and infrastructure dollars to the region. He also made a more solid argument for the importance of education and this event, which is important in the more suburban parts of the district. And as always, he fired off simple policy positions like a QB calling out the play on fourth down. It's effective.

But even Rittereiser, who never fails to mention the fact that he bailed hay to pay for college, floundered a little when the moderator asked my favorite question of the night: "How will you reach out to voters in rural areas? And before you say 'door-knocking,' have you ever door-knocked in a rural area?"

The crowd laughed.

“By working harder than the other side, turning out the votes that matter, and finding the folks that believe in us," Rittereiser replied. "We need everyone here to get involved. Thank you," he said.

The other candidates didn't do much better, at least in my view.

“I can do it. Trust me. Thank you," Cramer said, following a bunch of other mouth sounds.

"Having town halls. Meeting at parks,” Dr. Schrier said.

Hader also just listed buildings and situations where candidates tend to gather people together. “Stakeholder meetings, churches, town halls, community centers. We need to not have low expectations of who’s out there, but rather have collective high expectations. Getting them excited. Making sure they know they have a choice," Hader said.

Hunzinker talked about extending transit to rural areas, providing better internet access, "and all the other issues they have to deal with, that maybe other folks don’t have to deal with," he said, quickly losing the room.

But that's just what it looked like on the TV on the internet.

Harrington told me the audience was "impressed with the strength and depth of responses to a wide range of questions," which included pretty thorough answers about the opioid crisis and healthcare plans.

But from my vantage, I'm not sure all of them passed the test that Harrington and I talked about the day before forum began. "You gotta talk differently," he said. "It’s not a matter of saying things you don’t believe in, but it is a matter of choosing your words differently. We’re hoping one of these candidates is different enough to connect." Of the top three candidates—Rittereiser, Schrier, and Hader—it seems like Rittereiser captured the attention of the room the most. And, for what it's worth, he also received the most praise from the Facebook live feed commenters.

Harrington said the candidates can have another shot at wooing the rural voters down there if they want, and both candidates and constituents said they were hungry for more. "They said it was the very best event they had been part of," Harrington told me. "They want to do it again in east Pierce."

But whoever's left will be back in the suburbs on March 3. That candidate forum will be presented by Indivisible 8, and it'll be held at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in Sammamish, Washington.