2 races may hold key to House
Seattle Times Washington bureau
WASHINGTON - After Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, many analysts predicted they would retain power for a generation. Washington state awarded seven of its nine congressional seats to the new majority in the House that year, and Newt Gingrich declared the state "ground zero of the Republican revolution."
But the political landscape has undergone another transformation. Gingrich was driven from the national stage, and Democrats need to pick up just six seats to take back the House of Representatives.
Washington state - with two of the most competitive congressional races in the country - again could play a pivotal role in the November election determining who controls Capitol Hill.
"We've got the issues, we've got the environment, we've got the candidates," said Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
But Republicans, who are seeking to win the presidency, House and Senate for the first time since 1952, are pinning their hopes on the strength of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign.
"This is really going to be dependent to a great extent on the atmosphere surrounding the presidential race," said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman. "If the electorate goes out and votes for a change . . . Republicans will benefit from that up and down the ticket."
Democrats have one advantage nationally in that few of their members are retiring. Among the 31 open seats, 24 are held by Republicans, including Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Langley, who is leaving at the end of his third term.
Democrats say Metcalf's 2nd District seat - spanning Northwest Washington, from Edmonds to the Canadian border - is their best opportunity to gain a seat in Washington state.
But in the state's other top-tier race, freshman Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee, of Bainbridge Island, who won with less than 50 percent of the vote in 1998, faces a tough challenge.
The 1st District was created as a swing district, and voters have not been shy about ousting incumbents. Republican Rick White beat one-term Democrat Maria Cantwell in 1994; Inslee defeated White in 1998.
This year, Republicans have put forth former state Senate Majority Leader Dan McDonald of Yarrow Point.
A longtime legislator who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1992, McDonald is prepared to use everything from Inslee's vote for a federal budget that raised taxes in 1993 - when he represented another congressional district - to education issues in trying to paint the incumbent as someone who is out of step with the suburban district.
The campaign battleground stretches from the island communities of Kitsap County to the Eastside's wealthy high-tech neighborhoods.
"Jay Inslee is very liberal on taxes. I think he's wrong on education and education reform, and he's soft on crime," McDonald said.
But Inslee believes his Republican opponent is vulnerable for his votes against gun-control measures and health-care reform. For now, he has nearly twice as much money in the bank - $665,000, compared to McDonald's $370,000.
In the 2nd District, Rick Larsen, chairman of the Snohomish County Council, is the Democrats' choice to take Metcalf's seat against state Rep. John Koster.
Larsen has more than $200,000 in the bank; Koster has barely a tenth of that, $24,000, but gained a boost recently when GOP challenger Barry Sehlin quit the race.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas and other prominent conservatives have endorsed Koster. Local Democrats intend to use those endorsements to convince voters that Koster is too conservative for the district.
"We feel optimistic because we have a very centrist Democrat running against a right-wing Republican," said Paul Berendt, chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Those two congressional races are expected to receive maximum attention, and maximum financial support, from national party officials looking for an edge in the battle to control the House.
The parties, which have been raising record amounts of campaign cash, will be fighting over relatively few districts. There are 31 open House seats, and each party plans to target an additional two dozen incumbents. But analysts agree that 15 or fewer seats will be truly competitive in November.
Education, health care, Social Security and gun control top the list of issues Democrats plan to run on. Republicans suffered voter backlash in 1998 over the handling of the impeachment of President Clinton, and Davis, the National Republican Campaign Committee chairman, conceded that "Republicans had no message at that point."
Now, Davis says, the party's push for tax cuts, controlling government spending and allowing more local discretion over federal education funds will attract voters. He also said character and morality will be a major undercurrent and that the presidential candidate who capitalizes on the issue will help his party win the House.
Others disagree. Without a catalyzing national issue, they say, the presidential campaign is unlikely to be a decisive factor in congressional races.
"It's going to come down to a dozen House races that are going to be extremely close," said Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report. "It's going to come down to which candidate said something stupid in the last five days, who ran a great commercial in the last two weeks, who ran a better get-out-the-vote operation."
Disagreement over the influence of presidential politics offers a glimpse into the two parties' strategies.
Davis notes that people who vote only in presidential election years are likely to vote a straight party ticket based on their preference for the presidential candidate.
Kennedy, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, takes the Republicans' emphasis on Bush as evidence of their shortcomings. He contends that the GOP has emphasized Clinton investigations over policy.
"That says a lot about their own message. They're banking on George Bush," he said. "Why can't you stand on your own two feet?"
Boosted by the Kennedy name and Clinton's tireless fund raising, the House Democrats are in an unusually strong financial position this year. Their congressional committee finished the first quarter of 2000 with $28.6 million in the bank, compared to $15.5 million for the Republican congressional committee.
That could be significant. In 1998, the Democrats lost eight races by four percentage points or less, and money was a factor. Two-thirds of the national committee's cash on hand is in soft money, and it could give Democrats access to more TV time and get-out-the-vote activities.
Democrats also are encouraged by the fund-raising efforts of individual candidates in key races: 19 already have raised more than $400,000.
In the last election year, Republicans won 48.6 percent of the national vote for the House, compared to 47.7 percent for Democrats. This year, the margin could be just as close.
"I would rather be us than them right now," said the Republican committee's Davis. "They have the burden of picking up six seats."
Races to watch
In Washington state, other House races worth watching:
U.S. Term Limits is mounting an aggressive negative-advertising campaign in Eastern Washington's 5th Congressional District against Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, because he broke a promise to leave office after three terms.
On the Democratic side, Tom Keefe, who was an aide to then-Sens. Warren Magnuson and Brock Adams and to then-Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, says he'll soon announce his candidacy. He is generating the kind of excitement in political circles that the other two Democrats who were planning to run had not produced.
In Southwest Washington, freshman Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, is considered ripe for a challenge in the 3rd District. But state Republicans took until this month to settle on Trent Matson, a lobbyist for a building association, as their candidate.
Rep. Adam Smith, the first lawmaker re-elected to the House since the 9th District was redrawn after the last census, is considered safe by the Democrats. But in a suburban area that stretches from South King County to the northern edge of Thurston County, Republicans have targeted the race, thinking challenger Chris Vance, a Metropolitan King County councilman, could have an edge on local issues as well as feistiness.
- Kevin Galvin
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