Andrew Hughes, a 30-year-old Seattle tax lawyer, says he can take advantage of Washington state's top-two primary system to topple Jim McDermott. Political analysts aren't so sure.

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If history is any indication, U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott will win re-election this fall.

McDermott, a Seattle Democrat, has not garnered less than 70 percent of the vote in any election since he took office in 1988.

But a 30-year-old tax lawyer says this year could be different.

Fellow Democrat Andrew Hughes has put up $120,000 of his own money for a primary challenge, and he has raised a nearly equal amount from donors, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports.

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A Hughes victory in the Aug. 7 primary over McDermott’s other challengers — including Republican Ron Bemis, a Seattle attorney — would set up the state’s first intraparty general election in a congressional race since the top-two primary system began in 2008.

Under the primary, the two top vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the November election. Because Washington has never had an intraparty fight for a congressional seat, Hughes argues, the result could be surprising.

Not everyone agrees.

“No,” said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political-science professor, when asked if Hughes has a chance to beat the 12-term, 75-year-old incumbent. “There’s no world in which it’s realistic at all.”

Still, Hughes’ unorthodox candidacy — he has spent a night with the homeless and submerged himself in a water tank for 90 minutes, among other campaign stunts — has added rare intrigue to the 7th Congressional District race.

The 7th, which covers most of Seattle, Vashon Island, and several northern suburbs, changed by almost one-third in redistricting last year. It is estimated to now be about 76 percent Democratic instead of 80 percent, according to the state redistricting commission.

In response to the redistricting — and perhaps the money Hughes has raised — McDermott launched two cable-TV advertisements earlier this month, each touting his liberal record and military service.

They’re the first TV ads he’s run since he first sought the seat 24 years ago, campaign spokeswoman Dayna Lurie said.

“Running right at him”

Despite the money he’s put into his campaign, Hughes frames himself as a product of relatively modest beginnings.

He grew up on a farm and bed-and-breakfast in Poulsbo, where he says he cleaned stalls, waited tables and grew fascinated by the rest of the world.

He has a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics, a law degree from Seattle University and another master’s degree, in tax law, from the UW Law School, which he received last year.

It was while studying tax law that he became interested in politics, said Hughes, who describes the U.S. tax code as unfair and dated.

If elected, he said, he would support review of the code, eliminating unnecessary tax breaks and repealing the tax cuts enacted by former President George W. Bush. He’d push to put the extra revenue into education and energy programs, he said.

Hughes said he also would focus on legalizing gay marriage and marijuana use, in addition to fighting for a variety of government reforms, from setting congressional term limits at about 20 years to addressing insider trading by lawmakers.

In general, McDermott — a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee — agrees with almost all of those ideas.

But the challenger’s main argument is not about the issues. Hughes says McDermott simply hasn’t been an effective congressman.

“He hasn’t seized on the amount of time people have given him,” Hughes said.

“I’m not running to (McDermott’s) left or right,” he added, referring to strategies of challengers who are more liberal or more conservative. “I’m running right at him.”

Republican challenger

Although political analysts doubt that strategy, they said there’s something even less likely than Hughes beating McDermott: a win by Bemis, the main Republican candidate.

Bemis, a Seattle attorney, portrays himself as someone who can appeal to both parties.

He touts his experience in the legal sector, highlighted by 36 years at Stafford Frey Cooper law firm, where he rose to managing partner before leaving last year to focus on his private practice. Among his work at Stafford Frey Cooper, he represented two students who had been sexually assaulted by former Broadview-Thomson Elementary School teacher Laurence “Shayne” Hill.

The students were awarded $3 million from Seattle Public Schools in the high-profile 2008 case.

The 61-year-old is basing his campaign on the need to control the country’s increasing debt. He promised he would push for a spending cap and relentlessly look for ways to save taxpayer money.

“There are plenty of unnecessary programs and waste to cut back on,” including military spending, said Bemis.

Like Hughes, he argued that McDermott has had enough time in office to make a difference. And as for Hughes, Bemis said he doesn’t have enough experience or enough policy differences with McDermott.

But both McDermott and Hughes do have something Bemis doesn’t: money.

Bemis has raised just $6,800 for his campaign, according to FEC documents. That’s about 1.5 percent of the $424,000 McDermott has raised so far, according to FEC documents.

The incumbent

McDermott says he’s as energized as he’s ever been.

A psychiatrist, Navy veteran and Washington state legislator before his years in Congress, McDermott said the best day of his career came last month, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared President Obama’s health-care law constitutional.

McDermott, who will be the state’s longest-serving member of Congress if he wins this fall, counts his work on that bill among his top achievements in Washington, in addition to helping strengthen support for foster children and pushing veterans issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Chicago native rejected the criticism from Hughes and Bemis about his record, saying a lot of behind-the-scenes work in Congress goes unseen.

Now he wants another term so he can be there while the health-care bill is implemented. He also wants to work to secure federal support to help pay to replace Seattle’s deteriorating seawall.

“I think that what you want in Congress are experienced, knowledgeable people who can work with people and can see the other side,” he said. “And I offer that.”

Besides Hughes and Bemis, McDermott faces Democrat Don Rivers, who is making his fourth run against McDermott; Democrat Charles Allen; Scott Sutherland, who is running to promote green technology and AIDS research, and lists his party preference as GOP; and perennial candidate Goodspaceguy.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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