Tom Dougherty

What makes important people think that Eastside Democrat Darcy Burner can win in November 2008 the same congressional race that she lost last year?

Maryland congressman Chris Van Hollen, the current chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was in town on November 27 to answer just that question—and to help raise more money for Burner's second go at unseating Eastside Republican congressman Dave Reichert, now in his second term.

"I'm here in Seattle to demonstrate the strong support of the House Congressional Democrats for Darcy Burner and her campaign," Van Hollen told local reporters during a conference call held just after he touched down. "This race is a top priority for us."

Fair enough. But why Burner? Why again? Yes, she came from out of nowhere to within 2 percentage points of beating Reichert last year, but the district she's running in has been narrowly divided for some time, and the Democrats have yet to field a candidate for Congress there who's been able to get over that 50 percent threshold. Why is 2008 to be the year that the results change even as the candidate stays the same?

"It's clear that the presidential-year turnout will be helpful to Darcy," Van Hollen argued. "On top of that, you have an incumbent who continues to show that he sides with George Bush against the interests of his constituents."

Van Hollen seemed to suggest that the Democrats' strategy will once again be to tie Reichert to Bush. "This is going to be a change election," he told reporters. "Reichert's support for the Bush agenda is going to make it very hard for him to claim the mantle of change."

Aren't elections always about change, though? And wasn't the election about change last year, when Democrats took enough seats from Republicans across the country to gain control of the House and Senate, but couldn't quite get the "blue wave" high enough in Washington's 8th Congressional District to flip that seat into blue hands?

"The fact that Darcy Burner has been able to do so well and build on the foundation she has shows that she's got the political momentum to close the gap from last time, which is a very small gap," Van Hollen replied.

True, the thousands of votes that ended up separating Burner and Reichert last year constitute a relatively small gap, but in a state where the last governor's race was decided by just a few hundred votes, and in a district that's so evenly split, something big will have to change in order to flip those thousands of votes in the other direction (or to bring out thousands more Democratic voters than in 2006).

That big change could very well end up having nothing to do with mushy concepts like "the mantle of change" and the "foundation" that Burner is building on, and everything to do with that ever measurable and always influential element, cash.

The most significant thing Van Hollen noted during the conference call was that the National Republican Congressional Committee, which last year spent about $2.5 million to help Reichert win, currently has only $2.5 million total cash on hand to help Republicans around the country. Contrast that with the $29.2 million that Van Hollen currently has to offer Democrats and you see not only a snapshot of the hurt that Bush has put on the Republican Party as a whole, but also a clear path to a Burner victory.

That path would involve big money, more than national Democrats have been willing to offer in past years when Republicans and conservative independent expenditure groups have bought up 8th District television time in the last weeks of the campaigns and drowned the Democratic candidate in Republican ads.

Like last cycle, Burner has proven herself to be a prodigious fundraiser, reporting $370,000 cash on hand at the end of the third quarter, which beat Reichert's $339,000 cash on hand (she also beat him in second-quarter fundraising figures). And Democrats have been crowing about the fact that Burner is ahead of Reichert in the money race even though Bush himself showed up in Bellevue in August to help fill Reichert's war chest—an event that Van Hollen said proves that Bush and Reichert are not only joined in policy, but "joined at the pocketbook."

On top of that, the local Democratic Party has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission about the way that Reichert and the state Republican Party split up the haul from the Bush visit, and Van Hollen used a radio appearance on November 27 to call on Reichert to give some of the "tainted Bush money" back. (Don't hold your breath.) But if you're looking for real clues as to whether Burner is going to win this time around, keep your eye on both the money she's raising and the money that Van Hollen and the DCCC are willing to kick in.

So how much are they willing to spend to take Reichert's seat in 2008?

Van Hollen would only say: "The support will be there." recommended

eli@thestranger.com