As John Koster campaigns against incumbent Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen for the 2nd Congressional District seat, he is betting that voters angry over spiraling deficits and the sweeping federal health-care legislation will care more about jobs and the economy than the candidates' views on social issues.

John Koster physically flinches when asked about the prospect of two gay men kissing at the altar.

While many on the political right have given up the fight against gay rights, Koster, a three-term Snohomish County councilman and former state legislator, hasn’t wavered in his conservative beliefs. He opposes abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, and he supported Referendum 71, the failed effort to roll back state legal protections for same-sex couples.

As for gay marriage, Koster said, “I didn’t create the institution of marriage, God did. If you think it should be changed, take it up with the author.”

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But as Koster, 58, campaigns against incumbent Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen for the 2nd Congressional District seat, he is betting that voters angry over spiraling deficits and the sweeping federal health-care legislation will care more about jobs and the economy than the candidates’ views on social issues.

“The most important issues in this campaign have do with runaway government spending and a stimulus package that hasn’t stimulated the economy. Larsen — he’s culpable,” Koster said.

Larsen agrees the economy is the dominant issue for voters, but he blames Bush-era tax cuts and the recession for the record federal deficits. He said he’s trying to bring jobs to the district by working to win an Air Force tanker contract for Boeing, supporting Naval Station Everett and securing tax credits for small businesses.

“Economy and jobs are my number one focus,” Larsen said.

Candidate Larsen promised back in 2000 to be a new breed of Democrat who would rein in federal spending and balance the budget. The five-term incumbent’s failure to deliver is something Koster is already hitting hard.

A former third-generation Arlington dairy farmer, Koster is also hoping to ride the national wave of voter dissatisfaction with incumbents and polls that show that a majority of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. He was encouraged to run by tea-party activists in the district with whom he shares an anti-tax, anti-big-government passion.

Democratic stronghold

Larsen, 45, comes from a fifth-generation Arlington family and has won re-election with more than 60 percent of the vote in his last three races. In 2008, he defeated former Snohomish County sheriff Rick Bart by 62 to 38 percent, a stronger showing than Barack Obama, who drew 56 percent of the vote in the district.

The 2nd District has historically been a Democratic stronghold, with urban and blue-collar voters in Everett and Bellingham outnumbering rural and generally more conservative voters in Snohomish, Island and Skagit counties.

The only Republican to hold the seat in recent memory was Jack Metcalf, who was swept into office in 1994 on a national GOP tide and honored his promise to step down after three terms.

Congressional Quarterly, which handicaps national races, puts the 2nd District in the category “incumbent virtually certain to win the seat.” Cook Political Report lists the district as “likely Democratic.”

Larsen also enjoys a big edge in fundraising. He has raised $736,668 through March 31, the most recent figures available. About 65 percent of those funds come from political action committees and 35 percent from individuals.

Koster has raised $167,730, with almost all of it coming from individuals.

Republican John Carmack and Democrats Larry Kalb and Diana McGinness, all from Bellingham, are also challenging Larsen in the Aug. 17 primary. Kalb, a proponent of universal health care, has raised $8,428. The others haven’t reported any campaign contributions.

So far, Koster and Larsen have largely waged a “guilt-by-association” campaign, with Koster accusing Larsen of being in lock-step with Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in growing the size of government and passing a health-care bill that Koster labeled “socialism.”

Koster recently picked up the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who called him a “pro-family, pro-Second Amendment, pro-development fiscal conservative.”

Larsen quickly sent out a fundraising letter warning that the Palin-and-tea-party-backed Koster would “roll back seniors’ prescription benefits, privatize Social Security, and protect the lax regulations that led to the BP oil spill.”

Videographer in picture

The race is a rematch of the 2000 election, in which Koster faced Larsen for what was then an open seat representing the 2nd District. Koster was the top vote-getter in the primary, but lost to Larsen in the general election, 50 to 46 percent.

Koster said Larsen unleashed a media blitz after the primary that included TV ads attacking him not only for being against abortion, which he is, but also against contraceptives, which he is not.

Larsen has consistently supported abortion rights and backed the expansion of legal protections for same-sex couples that Ref. 71 sought to repeal.

With about a month before ballots are mailed to voters in this year’s primary, Koster sees signs of what he calls another “gutter campaign.”

Larsen has hired a videographer to tape Koster at campaign appearances. Koster calls the camera man “Larsen’s stalker” and says he’s tried to barge in to private functions.

Larsen said the videographer is only taping public campaign appearances.

“We don’t do interviews with people. We’re not there to engage with anybody,” Larsen said.

Unguarded remarks on the campaign trail have been the undoing of some candidates around the country over the past few years. Virginia GOP Sen. George Allen memorably called his opponent’s videographer a “macaca” — an insult that has racial connotations — and lost a re-election bid in 2006.

Koster’s campaign manager, Larry Stickney, who also ran the Ref. 71 campaign, said many candidates are now using videographers. “Ever since the ‘macaca’ thing, where a whole race turned on one comment, it’s more common for candidates to try to catch the other in a snare.”

Democratic political consultant Christian Sinderman said that given Koster’s conservative views, hiring a videographer is “a fair tactic.” He said that while Koster has enjoyed success as a county councilman, he’s elected only by his rural Arlington district, not countywide.

Sinderman questioned whether Koster’s popularity would translate to a five-county congressional race.

“A lot of his political stands are truly out of touch with a majority of voters,” Sinderman said.

Indeed, the two candidates seem to agree on only a couple of things: that economic issues are at the forefront of voters’ minds, and that their approaches to those issues are diametrically opposed.

Koster argues for free-market solutions while Larsen believes government can find effective answers to the country’s problems.

“We represent two divergent world views,” Koster said. “My hope is that we get that out there and let people make a choice.”

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or