For Republicans to win a majority in the U.S. House, the party must win seats like Washington state's 3rd Congressional District. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Brian Baird isn't seeking re-election, giving the GOP its best chance in years to capture the seat.

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OLYMPIA — David Castillo knows what Republicans want to hear as he campaigns for the 3rd District congressional seat.

“Conservatism is on the ascent,” he says, like a preacher at the pulpit, “and our moment is at hand.”

The line receives loud applause at GOP events, and the party certainly hopes he’s right. Republicans see this year’s elections as their best chance in years to regain control of the House.

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The path to a GOP majority in the House depends on winning seats like the 3rd District.

It’s a swing district roughly the shape of Texas that stretches from Olympia south to the Columbia River, and east from the Pacific Ocean to the Cascades. The district, with a population of about 780,000, has been hard-hit by the recession, with some of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

Democratic Rep. Brian Baird is retiring after six terms in office, making the 3rd the state’s only congressional race without an incumbent. The seat has been in Democratic hands almost continuously since 1960, with the exception of a four-year stint by GOP Rep. Linda Smith in the 1990s.

Baird has endorsed Denny Heck of Olympia to replace him. The former state representative and chief of staff for Gov. Booth Gardner is the clear Democratic front-runner, with more than $500,000 in the bank. Federal records show he’s loaned his campaign $250,000.

Republicans, though, see opportunity.

Voters are restless as the economy struggles. The new national health-care law remains unpopular with many. And Democrats in the state Legislature just approved $800 million in unpopular taxes, including those on beer, soda and candy.

The National Republican Congressional Committee considers the 3rd District a key race and already has made targeted phone calls there. It plans to devote more resources to the race later.

National political handicappers Congressional Quarterly and the Cook Political Report both consider the contest a toss-up between Republicans and Democrats.

Rep. Jaime Herrera, of Camas in Clark County, and Castillo, of Olympia, are the Republican front-runners. Herrera leads in the money race, raising about $200,000 compared with $160,000 for Castillo.

Herrera, 31, has the backing of several top Republicans, including former Sen. Slade Gorton. Castillo, 42, a financial planner who once worked for the Bush administration, has state Attorney General Rob McKenna’s endorsement, among others.

But both also tout tea-party backing and reject any notion they’re an establishment candidate — a label that’s spelled trouble for some candidates elsewhere this election season.

Castillo has a fiery stump speech.

“This current Congress and our president have shown a level of arrogance and disregard for the will of the American people unprecedented in our lifetime,” he said recently at a Clark County Republican Women forum. “They have shoved their socialist health-care reform down the collective throats of the American people.”

Herrera’s speeches are tamer, but the two candidates’ core views appear similar. Both preach fiscal restraint and want to replace the national health-care law approved by Democrats, beef up security on the borders and verify the citizenship of people applying for driver’s licenses.

“Personally, I think the Republican candidates are conservative to ultra-conservative,” said Don Carlson, a former state Republican senator from Vancouver.

The question for Republicans: Is the 3rd District as conservative as the candidates?

Conservative wave

Nationally, the GOP is tacking to the right, and tea-party favorites in Nevada, Maine, New Jersey and other states posted primary-election wins June 8 by calling for smaller government and fiscal conservatism.

Castillo and Herrera are hoping to ride that wave.

“It will become clear to everyone involved that there’s really only one choice for those who believe in conservatism and limited government, and that’s clearly me,” Castillo said.

Said Herrera: “I’m conservative on the fiscal side and conservative on the social side.”

Herrera has been an up-and-coming figure among Republicans since she arrived in the state Legislature three years ago.

She was appointed to her House seat in 2007 and ran for election in 2008, winning with 60 percent of the vote. Her announcement came last year within hours of Baird saying he would not run for re-election.

Before serving in the Legislature, she worked as an aide for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane.

Herrera has racked up endorsements from key GOP leaders including Gorton, McMorris Rodgers, Baird’s predecessor Smith and state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, Clark County. Herrera also notes local support from tea-party activists.

Castillo is the more polished public speaker of the two and leaves no doubt about where he stands.

“I believe that conservatism as an ideology is a winning ideology … and a winning message,” he said.

He argues there would be no need to move to the political middle after the Aug. 17 primary because his message appeals to a broad spectrum of voters, including independents.

His endorsements include McKenna, former state Attorney General Ken Eikenberry and state House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis.

He also has received support from tea-party activists and Christian conservatives, including FreedomWorks PAC, the political arm of FreedomWorks, which is active in the tea-party movement. Joe Fuiten, senior pastor at Cedar Park Assembly of God Church, a conservative Christian church in Bothell, has endorsed him as well.

One of them is expected to face Heck — who holds completely opposite views from the Republicans on many issues — in the general election.

Heck, 57, has the money and the Democratic connections to survive the primary, with endorsements from top party figures including Baird, Gardner, Gov. Chris Gregoire and U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton.

Heck has one Democratic opponent, Cheryl Crist, who has raised about $7,000.

Swing district

Both parties have proved they can win votes in the 3rd District.

“The common thread with elections there is, if you speak the language of the voter and identify with their concerns, then you’re successful,” said Christian Sinderman, a Democratic campaign consultant.

Those concerns are diverse. In the north is Olympia, the largely Democratic state capital with its concentration of government workers. In the south is fast-growing Vancouver, the state’s fourth-largest city. Rural areas such as Lewis County, a Republican stronghold, are in between.

Baird easily won all his races. He was noted for sometimes being at odds with his party on key issues. After returning from a trip to Iraq in 2007, Baird said troops should stay in the country as long as needed to ensure stability and argued against withdrawing troops. And he was the only Washington Democrat to vote against an early version of the House health-care bill, although he supported the measure that ultimately made it into law.

Republicans argue the district leans Republican. President Bush won there in 2000 and 2004 by narrow margins, less than 2 percent in both cases, and Republican Dino Rossi took the district in his unsuccessful bids for governor with a comfortable lead in 2004, and again, by a hair, in 2008.

Polling done by the University of Washington indicates voters there are unhappier with the national health-care law and the job performance of Congress than is the state as a whole.

Still, the district has elected both Democrats and Republicans to the state Legislature. And, while Rossi carried the 3rd in 2008, so did President Obama.

The leading candidates in both parties seem to have one thing they agree on — doing something about the area’s high unemployment rate. The unemployment rate in Clark County, for example, is 13.1 percent, compared with 7.5 percent in King County.

“The focus here,” Herrera said, “is who’s going to focus on creating jobs.”

Said Heck: “My message is driven pretty strongly by my concern about the economy and the unemployment level. … I’ve lived in my district my entire life. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

In the end, the key to winning the 3rd, political consultant Sinderman said, “is not a matter of party label, so much as it is who has the broadest appeal among a very volatile electorate.”

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or

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