Republicans see this year's election as their best chance in decades to take the 6th Congressional District seat that's been held by Rep. Norm Dicks, who is retiring. But state Sen. Derek Kilmer is working to keep the position in Democrats' hands.

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As the lone Democrat in his race for Congress, Derek Kilmer is the heir apparent to retiring U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks.

But Republicans aren’t going to let their best chance in decades to take the 6th Congressional District seat go by without a fight. Five Republicans are among the seven candidates, all from Pierce County, trying to make it through the Aug. 7 primary election.

Personal wealth should allow Bill Driscoll, a real-estate executive and Weyerhaeuser descendant, to outspend the candidates who are more familiar to GOP activists: lawyer Doug Cloud and technology consultant Jesse Young. Also in the race are real-estate investor Stephan Brodhead and accountant and software-company owner David Eichner, plus an independent, Eric Arentz.

Whoever prevails is likely to face an uphill battle in November against state Sen. Kilmer, the only candidate with experience as an elected official.

Washington’s 6th District is one of the state’s more evenly divided between the parties, but Democrats have won 24 straight elections in 48 years.

“It would be a pretty big upset for a Republican to win this race,” former state GOP Chairman Chris Vance said.

Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican who helped draw the new district lines after the 2010 census, said the 6th is “marginally competitive.” Gorton’s redistricting counterpart, Democrat and former Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, said Kilmer’s victories in a Republican-leaning legislative district show he can reach beyond Democrats.

Current GOP chairman, Kirby Wilbur, said Driscoll or Young could attract blue-collar Democrats.

The district straddles both sides of the Tacoma Narrows and stretches north through Kitsap County and west through the Olympic Peninsula. Redistricting took away University Place, east Lakewood and Shelton, Mason County, in exchange for Bainbridge Island and the rest of north Kitsap.

The Republican candidates tout their business backgrounds, and some have military experience, including Driscoll (Marine Corps), Eichner (Navy) and Brodhead (Air Force).

Young recounts his upbringing in a poor family in and out of homelessness in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood as a point of difference with Driscoll.

Young also highlights his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Driscoll is the rare Republican who favors both, saying the government should stay out of those personal decisions.

Defense issues

Some of the biggest differences among the Republicans are over military issues. Eichner, a supporter of presidential candidate Ron Paul, favors ending the Afghan war, while Cloud says the U.S. shouldn’t be fighting there without a declaration of war.

Driscoll, like Kilmer, says the U.S. presence should be phased out, as is happening now.

Driscoll draws on his time stationed in Afghanistan, where he said he saw how the original U.S. mission had expanded to include democracy building, a job he said is for diplomats, not soldiers.

“We have to be more cautious in our foreign affairs,” Driscoll, who also had a combat tour in Iraq, told delegates at the state GOP convention several weeks ago.

Young said the war effort has been constrained because of news coverage of military missteps. He said the media should be removed, not the military, which has promises to keep in Afghanistan.

“We shouldn’t have had to fight this war in front of the media,” Young told delegates. He pointed to the coverage of the massacre of Afghan civilians and charges against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales of Joint Base Lewis-McChord — and the reaction from President Obama, who called the killings “outrageous” and “unacceptable.”

“I would never apologize for the United States. Ever. Period,” Young said in an interview. “You either believe in our country or you don’t.”

On other military issues, Brodhead called for a more aggressive funding schedule for Boeing’s Air Force refueling tanker to create jobs. Eichner cited the same goal in calling for reducing military bases around the globe.

Driscoll said his effort to tame debt would include taking on Pentagon purchasing. But he said U.S. defense strategy should focus on Asia and the Pacific region, which could benefit local military bases.

Cloud sees corruption in Congress tied to military spending. His biggest applause line at the GOP convention came in describing his request for files from an FBI investigation into members of Congress steering defense contracts to a campaign contributor’s clients. He asserts that Dicks would be implicated by the documents and that Dicks decided to retire to keep the files from being released.

“I almost single-handedly destroyed the career of Norm Dicks,” he told delegates. “What I did to Norm Dicks I can do the rest of ’em.”

Dicks denied that, and a House ethics committee cleared him of wrongdoing. State Democrats’ spokesman Benton Strong said suggestions that Dicks was acting as anything other than “an unbelievable advocate for that district” are unfounded.

The economy

Between the two parties, the biggest contrast may be competing strategies on government’s role in stimulating the economy.

Kilmer’s prescription for creating jobs includes reducing the tax and regulatory burden on small businesses — a proposal that comes naturally from his job at the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.

But he also says government can stimulate the economy by spending on such projects as roads and sewer systems.

That’s a reflection of his role in directing state money to public-works projects as co-author of the capital budget, which funds government construction and renovation projects, and environmental-cleanup efforts.

A deal Kilmer and other Democrats negotiated with Republicans this year allowed the state to borrow extra money for projects while also asking voters to tighten the state’s debt limit.

But the Republicans running to take on Kilmer say stimulus provides only fleeting jobs while adding to the nation’s deficit.

Addressing supporters at a fundraiser in Gig Harbor, Kilmer said government doesn’t directly create jobs, only sets the conditions for them. But he said government needs defending from being “made to be incompetent by an ideology that says government can’t do anything right.”

Young argues for deregulation as a way to help companies create jobs. He says the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, is threatening jobs by putting up obstacles to Northwest coal exports.

To deal with the deficit, Young called for cutting health-care costs through lawsuit reform and weeding out medical fraud.

Driscoll said he would build relationships across party lines to work out a budget-cutting deal. It’s similar to what Kilmer promises, citing his work on the debt deals and balancing of an out-of-whack state budget to show he can work with Republicans.

“I think it’s worth looking at the revenue side of the ledger,” Kilmer said in an interview. “The federal government has tax breaks for everything from racehorses to imported ceiling fans, and I don’t think that makes sense.”

Driscoll said some tax exemptions would have to be eliminated as part of a bipartisan solution to the deficit. Brodhead is the most specific about new revenue, calling for a higher payroll tax to shore up Social Security and for seniors to foot more of their Medicare costs.

Eichner and Cloud have the most sweeping proposals for cuts — moving federal responsibility for education to the state level, for example. Cloud also called for eliminating farm subsidies. Eichner called for eliminating foreign aid, the Transportation Security Administration and the departments of Energy, Commerce, Interior and Housing and Urban Development.