Washington's 1st Congressional District is one of the most evenly divided districts between Democrats and Republicans. It is a microcosm of the many battles raging over the size of the federal government and social issues — battles that shape the national presidential contest.
The other Washington is 2,700 miles to the east, but echoes of Beltway partisan politics ring loudly in this Washington’s most contested — and most up-for-grabs — race for Congress.
The candidates, Republican John Koster and Democrat Suzan DelBene, trade jabs that each is too “extreme” for the 1st Congressional District and engage in the partisan push-pull of deficit reduction versus proposed further stimulus spending.
DelBene would like to talk about “the war on women,” a national Democratic talking point centered on abortion access and health-care coverage for contraceptives. Koster is eager to “start the conversation” about reforming entitlement programs and reining in the national deficit.
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The 1st District, stretching from the Microsoft suburbs of King County to the dairy farms at the Canadian border, is the only congressional seat in the Pacific Northwest rated as anything other than a lock for one party or another.
When the district was redrawn last winter, it was described as one of the most evenly divided in the country. In that way, it is a microcosm of national party warfare.
The familiar clang of national campaign themes is also likely to draw a gush of out-of-state political spending on behalf of Koster, a well-known name in Snohomish County, and DelBene, whom national Democrats view as a top-flight candidate.
Thus far, a Democratic PAC independent of the campaign has reserved $800,000 in TV airtime, likely to support DelBene, but handicappers believe super PACs will end up aiding both candidates.
That could make the 1st District the state’s most expensive congressional race. Nearly $5 million was already raised during a bruising August primary. DelBene, a multimillionaire, has proved willing to write her campaign big checks — and may need to do so again, if that is what it takes.
Koster, a Snohomish County legislator and councilman for nearly two decades, handily won the August primary with 45 percent of the vote as the only Republican in a seven-candidate field.
A former Arlington dairy farmer, he prefers jeans and silver-tipped cowboy boots and has been endorsed by big-name social conservatives, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. He considers the federal government’s deficit spending “unconscionable.”
DelBene, the former state revenue director, defeated four other Democrats — including Darcy Burner, a more liberal Democrat, and state Sen. Steve Hobbs, a fiscal moderate — in the primary. A low-key technocrat in the mold of U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, DelBene, who worked at Microsoft for 14 years in two stints, embraces new stimulus spending and tighter Wall Street regulation, backs gay marriage and focuses stump speeches on “preserving the middle class.”
DelBene and Koster also both advanced to a November special election to serve the last month of former Rep. Jay Inslee’s term (Inslee is running for governor). That means the winner will likely be the most senior member of the new freshman class of the U.S. House, with a leg up on committee assignments and office space.
Despite Koster’s showing in the primary, national political ratings services increasingly give DelBene the edge.
Kyle Kondik, who follows U.S. House races for the nonpartisan Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said national Democrats breathed a sign of relief when DelBene beat Burner. “DelBene is the candidate that the national folks preferred,” said Kondik. “She starts out the favorite, and it helps that she can self-fund.”
The national parties or their allies are likely polling now, and the outcome may determine how much outside money flows to the race.
After the primary, Jessica Taylor, an analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report, another nonpartisan rating service, shifted her rating more heavily toward DelBene, to a “lean Democrat” designation for the district. Koster is more conservative than a traditional “West Coast Republican,” she said. President Obama’s popularity in Washington also could help boost down-ticket Democrats such as DelBene.
Because of that, Democratic allies are more likely to spend on DelBene’s behalf than Republican groups are for Koster, Taylor said. Last week, DelBene was endorsed by EMILY’s List, an influential Democratic group that supports female candidates.
“If (DelBene) needs Democrats to be there, they will, probably quicker than Republicans will be for Koster,” Taylor said.
Both handicapping services predict a small swing — six or seven seats — in the U.S. House toward Democrats. Republicans currently hold a 52-seat majority, so even if DelBene wins, she would be in the minority.
And victory this year will do nothing to change the belief that the 1st District will be up for grabs each cycle. Former Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a member of the redistricting commission that redrew the state’s congressional-district boundaries last year, said the 1st District was intentionally designed as a swing district.
“I expect it to be an expensive race this year, and every year the squiggly lines are in place,” said Gorton, who backs Koster.
Neither campaign is at full speed yet, and neither has reserved TV-ad time for the fall.
DelBene will have a big financial advantage if she self-funds near the level she did in this year’s primary and in her 2010 race against U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert in the 8th District. Combined, DelBene, whose estimated worth is more than $50 million, has spent $4.5 million on her campaigns.
“I haven’t even made a decision on that,” said DelBene when asked how much she intended to spend on the general election.
Koster raised $506,394 during the primary but had just $102,678 on hand, according to the most recent financial-disclosure reports. He said his fundraising had picked up after the primary, and he expected to raise more than during his unsuccessful 2010 campaign against U.S. Rep Rick Larsen in the 2nd Congressional District. He raised $1.1 million in that race.
The two candidates agree on few policy issues, but both say that Paul Ryan was a useful vice-presidential pick for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Ryan wrote a much-discussed budget plan to rewrite the tax code and greatly shrink the federal government, including turning Medicare into a voucher program.
Koster, who features a running tally of the national debt on his campaign website, called Ryan “an outstanding public servant” with the intellect and “courage to put ideas out there to start the conversation” on the future of Medicare and the national deficit.
To DelBene, Ryan’s budget provides a sharp point of attack. She described Ryan as the author of “extreme policies” that provide “tax breaks to the wealthy” and “eliminate Medicare as we know it.”
To contrast herself with Koster, DelBene, who supports abortion rights, spotlights the national GOP’s newly adopted platform, which contains an anti-abortion position that has no exception for cases of rape and incest.
“The national Republican Party has moved extremely far to the right, with a platform that has no exceptions,” said DelBene. “My opponent embraces those positions.”
Koster hopes to keep the conversation on the economy and deficit spending. “Let’s define what extreme is. I think a $16 trillion (national) debt is extreme. I think over 23 million Americans that are underemployed or unemployed is extreme …
“Those are the things that people want to talk about. (Democrats) want to get into the weeds of other issues because they don’t have ideas.”
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmartin206.