Down in southwest Washington, up against the Columbia River, is a good example of why liberals find the future so unsettling: Washington's 3rd Congressional District. This district's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives has been held by a Democrat for 46 of the last 50 years, and since 1999 it has been in the hands of Democrat Brian Baird, the Iraq-war-flip-flopping, health-care-reform-dissing congressman from Vancouver, Washington. Baird won his last four elections with over 60 percent of the vote, and then suddenly announced in December that he's retiring to "pursue other options." When he did this, respected political soothsayers in D.C. took one look at his district and declared it a "toss-up" that could easily fall to a Republican this November.
Which makes sense. The average unemployment rate for the seven counties in the district is 12.9 percent. Anger and frustration are high, and voters there haven't shown any particular loyalty to one party or another over the last decade. Sure, they sent Baird back to Congress six times, but that's more about his idiosyncrasies matching theirs than about him being a Democrat. This is a confusing, ticket-splitting bunch of voters we're talking about. They embraced Barack Obama after they twice embraced George W. Bush, went for Democratic Senate candidate Patty Murray and Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi in the same election (2004), and went the other way by picking Republican Senate candidate Slade Gorton and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gary Locke in a different election (2000).
A Republican, in other words, has decent odds of being elected to Congress from the 3rd District this fall. And if that happens, it will be more trouble for progressives—another data point in a narrative, fueled most recently by conservative Scott Brown's success at grabbing Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in Massachusetts, that says voters across the country are rejecting President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders. Rejecting their big reform pushes (including the currently comatose health care bill). Rejecting their failure to fix the economy. Rejecting basic liberal ideals.
The alternative, of course, is for Democrats to win the 3rd in November, and in doing so provide one less reason for the narrative-spinners to draw dire conclusions about Obama's agenda (while also providing one more Democrat in Congress to help move and shape his proposals).
Enter Denny Heck, 57, born in Vancouver, educated at Evergreen State College, elected to the first of five terms in the state legislature at age 24 (where he eventually became house majority leader), chief of staff to Governor Booth Gardner, cofounder of the state public affairs channel TVW, early investor in Real Networks, successful businessman, self-published author and playwright.
"Everywhere I've traveled in the 3rd over the last year, I've just been deeply, deeply struck by the fear, the anger, the frustration, the economic stress," Heck said in a recent phone interview. "You really can't go anywhere without hearing a pretty moving tale of, you know, 'My husband drove a fuel truck for 28 years, and now he's out of work.'"
Finding ways to create jobs, in both the public and private sectors, is "something I have some expertise in," Heck told me.
He'll be saying that a lot more over the next few months. The August 17 primary is half a year away, and Heck is not the only Democrat who thinks he can both improve the fortunes of the 3rd District and beat back any Republican who wants to do the same.
Representative Deborah Wallace (D-Vancouver) says her middle-class values and proven track record of winning over swing voters will make her "very competitive" in the race for Baird's seat. Senator Craig Pridemore (D-Vancouver) says his military and legislative experience will be an asset—as will the fact that, unlike Heck, "I haven't spent a lot of time with a lot of wealthy people."
That's apparent. Pridemore reported an anemic $8,500 on hand as of December 31. As of the same day, Wallace had reported about $23,000. Heck, meanwhile, reported over $210,000. He gave himself half of that haul. Still, the other half, which came from his fundraising network, was almost five times the donations Wallace reported. And Heck has already racked up an impressive list of political endorsements that includes Governor Christine Gregoire, former governor Booth Gardner, and former 3rd District congressman Don Bonker.
"Of all the candidates, Denny is the one who can bring a fresh approach to problem solving," said former Democratic state party chair Paul Berendt, who is also backing Heck. "Having created jobs in the public, nonprofit, and private sectors, he knows what it will take to create jobs in each. He is just best prepared to hit the ground running and make a difference in Congress."
No doubt, old political friends have stoked early interest in Heck as a form of payback. (Berendt, for example, has known Heck for 25 years.) "Denny has a lot of contacts with the Olympia power elite," Pridemore said. "So that didn't surprise me." But it's also not a bad strategy for party leaders given how tough this race is likely to be: Settle on the most viable candidate long before the August primary, throw as much support behind him as possible, and thereby give him an early advantage over the Republicans (who haven't yet rallied around one candidate).
Among the Republicans who want the seat: Jon Russell, who touts his experience on the Washougal City Council and has cut a YouTube video comparing himself to a cure for intestinal disorders; former Bush administration bureaucrat David Castillo, who opposes gay marriage and wants to "protect innocent life from conception to death"; and Representative Jaime Herrera (R-Camas), who cut her political teeth as a legislative aide to Republican congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane and is casting herself as "a woman who believes deeply that America is on the wrong track."
Dwight Pelz, chair of the state Democratic Party, has taken particular note of the threat from Herrera, comparing her to Sarah Palin and calling her a "right-wing Republican" who is "long on style, short of substance." Heck, who is long on experience and short on flash, could be the perfect foil to a Palinesque Herrera, deflating her the way that Joe Biden, with his calm gravitas, deflated Sarah Palin and her telegenic incoherence during the 2008 vice presidential debate.
But Pelz, while admitting that Heck is "doing a good job," says it's far too soon to pick sides.
"Right now we have three great Democratic candidates," Pelz said. "We're seeing who can raise money, who can get endorsements, and who can connect with voters. It's very early in the race."
Ironically, just one day after Pelz said this, he and the state party took sides in another Washington congressional race, picking Suzan DelBene as the official Democratic nominee to battle Republican incumbent Dave Reichert in the Eastside's 8th Congressional District. Some of the dynamics in that district are different, but it did seem a violation of Pelz's own rules.
"We have rules, and we don't violate our rules unless we violate our rules," Pelz explained.
Meanwhile, Heck is continuing to campaign all over the district, talking about the wrecked economy, and staying on message when asked about the Republican threat and the behind-the-scenes politics of sorting out the Democratic field. "None of that is going to deter me from talking about the thing I want to talk about, which is job creation," he said. "And if you get really bored with that, I'll talk about that some more."