U.S. representative Dave Reichert (R-8) is starting to look like the Wile E. Coyote of Eastside politics. Every two years, a challenger drops an Acme safe on the congressman in a brutal campaign to unseat him. But when the dust settles, there he is—still standing, if a bit shorter. Is there any way Democrats can take this guy out?
I'm here to tell you he can be beat. How do I know? Because I lost to him.
That's not a misprint. I was the campaign manager for Dave Ross, Reichert's Democratic opponent in 2004.
I learned more in losing that race than I ever did after a victory. Losing to Reichert gave me a long time to think about what we should have done differently—and what we can do to de-Reichert Washington's 8th Congressional District (CD) in 2010.
In the early 1990s, the 8th District, which includes parts of eastern King and Pierce Counties, was considered the Ds' version of Stalingrad. By the mid-to-late 90s, though, it was finally starting to look a little more blue. In 1996, Bill Clinton won big in the 8th District, as did Senator Patty Murray in 1998 and Governor Gary Locke in 2000.
As the 2000s went on, even state legislative seats in Bellevue and parts east began to move into the D column. We started to think, maybe even assume, that Jennifer Dunn would be the last Republican to represent that district in Congress as well.
We were wrong. Fast forward to 2004. Congresswoman Dunn announced her resignation, the Ds pounced, and thus was born a very strong field consisting of one former candidate, one tech millionaire, and KIRO radio's voice of common sense, Dave Ross.
The Rs had an equally strong field, and after a tough primary, they put forward then–King County sheriff Dave Reichert.
Despite our efforts, and thanks in part to a few million dollars' worth of brutal, untrue TV ads against him (including images of a burning American flag and Seattle in nuclear winter), Dave Ross did not become a congressman. Dave Reichert did and he remains a congressman despite two close races with another strong candidate, Darcy Burner.
I'm not going to armchair quarterback those Burner efforts. First, I played offensive line in football and couldn't throw a football to the ground if not for gravity. Second, Darcy had a good team, and she ran two hard campaigns. Now it's time to look forward to what the Ds should do if they want to evict Reichert from a district where a solid majority of voters now lean Democratic.
Get a Good Candidate... Yesterday
Don't wait until June of 2010 to get someone to run. The Ds have a deep bench on the Eastside with smart, tough legislators like Ross Hunter, Judy Clibborn, and Christopher Hurst representing the area. Hell, if five want to run, let 'em—the more the merrier! Political Darwinism can be a good thing. Hillary Clinton's campaign did more to hone Obama in their two-person version of Survivor than any of his advisers or donors. Over the next 18 months, the candidates can build a strong fundraising base, doorbell themselves through six pairs of Adidas, and get to better know the 8th CD better then Reichert ever will.
Also, the ideal candidate would be an elected official. Not because electeds are any smarter or better able to represent the district, but because folks tend to vote for people they've seen on previous ballots. Both Ross and Burner were first-time candidates in '04 and '06, respectively. True, Burner ran in '08 as a second-time candidate, but she had never served in office—giving Reichert the opportunity to hammer her on experience once again, which he did, gleefully.
Start Knocking on Doors Now. Campaigns, ultimately, are really simple: You've got to get more votes than the other guy. Ordering coffee takes more math. With just two years until the next race, the Democrats need to funnel some of the excellent, and now unemployed, staff from the most recent election cycle into voter-registration efforts. Between community college students, new Microsoft employees, and just general growth, there are enough unregistered future voters out there to make Reichert sweat. The Eastside is already sending Democrats to the state legislature—a few thousand more registered Ds would send a strong candidate to an easy victory.
Finally, King County is set to go to all-absentee voting in 2009. Once ballots start going out to every voter in mid-October, the Ds will have two full weeks to nag their people to send in their damn ballots.
Look at Eastern Pierce County
Although it's a small part of the district in terms of population, eastern Pierce County is the Democrats' biggest problem. They really, really like to vote for Republicans out there. Instead of running from that fact, we need to hit it head on. Most of these voters are working class, which means Democrats traditionally have avoided the area like the 20-block radius around Nordy's Half-Yearly Sale.
Which is dumb. Lets start with the fact that Reichert smashed Burner in Pierce County: 58.5 percent to 42 percent. OUCH, that is going to leave a bruise. I'm not arguing we can win a majority out there, but we need to stop letting Reichert run up the score so we have such a high hill to climb in King County. I would suggest doing targeted issues research just in Pierce County. What matters to them?
The 8th is really at least two separate districts, and the Dems should look at it that way. Don't poll districtwide; poll by county. Don't set up a single campaign office in downtown Bellevue; set up two: one in Bellevue and one in downtown Orting. Target mail and cable TV ads at these two very different groups of voters. Use the issues you uncover in your research to pound away at Reichert.
Again, we're not going to win here—they did pick Bush over Kerry—but c'mon, let's trip the Rs up a bit.
Make It a Local Race
Congressional races always tend to focus on national issues, because they're sexy. But the actual scale of this race is much smaller than that. Instead of only debating the war(s) and the Wall Street bailout, start talking about schools, roads, and parks. Reichert has gotten REALLY good at voting just far enough left on the sexy stuff to hold onto his seat without upsetting whichever DeLay wannabe is the top R in the House at the moment. His moderate-seeming voting record makes him hard for Democrats to hit, because there just isn't a lot to shoot at.
So change the conversation. Make Reichert spend money and oxygen bending over backward on local issues instead of skating along on the fact that he occasionally votes the Dems' way on the environment—for example, on the Wild Sky bill. Are any of us really against federal funds to support our firefighters, teachers, and transportation? Of course not. As a Republican, Reichert is supposed to be against expanding government spending. As a representative of the 8th District, Reichert would have to tie himself in knots to oppose expanding those programs. So make him.
Hit Reichert on His Record as Sheriff
I know, I know, he caught the Green River Killer. Well, there's a lot more to his record than just Gary Ridgway. First, there's the stunningly crooked Dan Ring case, which had a deputy neck-deep in a corruption case involving prostitution and drug use. That case occurred on Reichert's watch, and he meddled in the investigation by kicking the FBI off the case. (It's in the P-I!)
Also, (sacred cow alert!) there's a fair amount of evidence that Reichert mismanaged the Green River investigation by assuming there was another suspect even though the investigators had questioned Ridgway early on in the case. Finally, just watch the Ridgway interrogation tapes. Reichert himself interviewed him (uh... why?), and he postures and mugs for the camera like he learned his questioning tactics from Reno 911! Get all this information to the voters. His record as sheriff is the foundation of his campaigns, and it is not so shiny.
Beating Reichert won't be easy. He's been in that seat for six years now and the Rs have invested a ton in him to keep that seat in Republican hands. That said, the 8th is a Democratic congressional district. Period. It's time for the Democrats to focus on getting the district a congressperson who truly represents its values.
Marco Lowe is an unrepentant politico. He has worked for more than a decade, unshaven and wearing a Seahawks T-shirt, on a number of campaigns of otherwise respectable officials. After an expensive and cold trip back East for grad school, he returned to Seattle with a perfectly timed career jump into the imploding real-estate industry.