Dwight Pelz is fretting. "I'm worried about a lot of races," the chairman of the state Democratic Party says, sounding just as anxious as most top Democrats these days.
Here's why: Polls indicate that Republicans could easily take over the U.S. House of Representatives this fall—possibly the U.S. Senate, too—and here in Washington State, three close House races could not only help give Republicans more power in D.C., but could also flip the balance of power in this state's House delegation, which has been majority Democratic since 2001.
One of the races that's giving Pelz agita: the contest between Rick Larsen, the five-term Democratic congressman from the 2nd District (which includes Bellingham, Everett, and the San Juan Islands), and Republican John Koster, a longtime Snohomish County Council member who's anti-choice, wants to do away with the Department of Education, and surprised many observers by beating Larsen in the August primary. The makeup of the primary field had something to do with that upset (there were a total of three Democrats splitting the primary vote and only two Republicans), but so did the economy. Polls since the primary have shown a tight race in the 2nd, with a late-September SurveyUSA poll giving Larsen only a three-point lead. (The margin of error on that poll? Plus or minus four points.)
Larsen promises he won't lose. "I'm absolutely confident I'm going to win," he said in a phone interview on October 16. But say he does lose. Say Koster's hardcore conservatism lights a fire under the Tea Party voters in northwestern Washington, and that fire, plus the $600,000 in anti-Pelosi/Larsen ads that were recently pumped into the district by the shadowy American Future Fund, does the trick. Say, too, that Republican Dave Reichert, currently fielding questions about the fitness of his brain (see page 17) and in a tightening race with Democratic challenger Suzan DelBene, manages to hold on to his Eastside congressional seat for a fourth term. And say that Democrat Denny Heck loses to Republican Jaime Herrera, as most recent polling suggests will be the case, in his bid for the seat of retiring Democratic congressman Brian Baird in Washington's 3rd District (Olympia, Vancouver, and the southwestern Washington coast).
If all that happens—and it's hardly a far-fetched scenario—then Washington, a supposedly blue state that hasn't had majority Republican representation in the U.S. House in about a decade, will be sending to the House five Republicans and four Democrats.
Herrera, the Republican candidate in the 3rd District, didn't respond to a request for an interview, but her general message can be seen in a commercial she just began airing, which shows her leading a business meeting and then flashes retro pictures of Heck from the 1970s, when he began his political career. "A lot's changed since the 1970s, but not Denny Heck," the commercial says. "He's still a taxer and a spender." Koster, who also didn't respond to an interview request, recently went up with an ad in the 2nd District that pounds Larsen for "a decade of economic failure."
If all that sounds a lot like the same economy-based argument in the tight U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Patty Murray and Republican challenger Dino Rossi, well, it's because it is. "Herrera has put herself in lockstep with Republican leadership," said Grant Lahmann, spokesman for Heck. "Koster's talking about the same stuff that Rossi and everybody across the country is," Pelz said. Larsen agreed, but tried to turn Koster's familiar rhetoric against him. "He has outsourced his thinking to the Republican Party," Larsen said of Koster. "They want to conveniently forget that George W. Bush was president in 2001, and that the recession started under Bush not Obama."
That may be true, but it's working. A recent Washington Poll found that 47 percent of people in this state think things are "seriously on the wrong track," most see the economy as problem number one, and an election-determining number still haven't made up their mind on whether they want Republicans or Democrats in control of the House. Asked who they're planning to vote for in House races this fall, 44 percent of Washingtonians said the Democratic candidate and 41 percent said the Republican candidate. (The poll's margin of error was 4 percent.) Meanwhile, 15 percent of poll respondents said that, a month ahead of the election, they were still undecided.