The former prosecutor is locked in a contest with rival Democrats Kim Schrier and Shannon Hader to squeeze past the top-two Aug. 7 primary and take on presumptive Republican standard-bearer Dino Rossi this fall.

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In a TV ad for his congressional campaign, Democrat Jason Rittereiser looks into the camera and slams President Trump’s conduct at the recent Helsinki summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

“Here in Ellensburg, we call that treason,” Rittereiser says in the spot, recorded in a rural field in Kittitas County.

The aggressive message reflects Rittereiser’s strategy — and predicament — in the nationally watched 8th Congressional District race to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn.

Editor’s note

This is the first in a series of stories about the leading candidates for Congress in the 8th District.

A former prosecutor described by some as a rising legal star, Rittereiser, 34, is locked in a contest with rival Democrats Kim Schrier and Shannon Hader to squeeze past the top-two Aug. 7 primary and take on presumptive Republican standard-bearer Dino Rossi this fall.

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Rittereiser and his supporters say his Ellensburg roots give him the best shot at attracting independent voters in the Cascade Mountains-spanning 8th District, which has never sent a Democrat to Congress. One independent poll has lent that theory credence.

But to get a shot at Rossi, Rittereiser has to get through the primary. And he has struggled to gain an edge on Schrier, who has led Democrats in fundraising and primary polls, and Hader, who started late but has piled up a streak of activist endorsements.

The treason ad distills Rittereiser’s approach as he has sought to stand out in a Democratic field where the top candidates have only nuanced differences on issues.

He launched his campaign last year, prior to Reichert’s retirement announcement, with 30 town halls in as many days. It was an effort to show a contrast with Reichert, who has faced criticism in recent years over his refusal to hold such public events.

Rittereiser is the only one of the three major Democratic contenders to pledge to co-sponsor HR 676, a sweeping “Medicare for All” bill that would establish a national, single-payer health-care system.

Democrats in the race have mostly avoided attacks on one another. But Rittereiser has been an exception, accusing Schrier of hypocrisy because her pediatrics practice at Virginia Mason does not accept all Medicaid plans serving poor children. (He has more recently dropped that line of attack.)

For their part, Schrier and Hader, both doctors, have pointed out that there are plenty of male lawyers in Congress already. An analysis by the Congressional Research Service found 167 House members in 2018 have law degrees.

But supporters say Ritter­eiser’s quick thinking and trial experience make him stand out on the campaign trail.

“I have been to countless candidate forums and I have seen all of them speak I don’t know how many times. I think Jason is the strongest,” said Chris Petzold, co-founder of an 8th District chapter of the liberal Indivisible movement, which is seeking to flip control of Congress.

Republicans have signaled they’ll try to turn Rittereiser’s primary rhetoric against him, calling his anti-Trump ads “extreme” for the district’s moderate-leaning voters.

Rittereiser didn’t back down in an interview last week at his Issaquah campaign office, saying that standing up to Trump after Helsinki was patriotic.

“He stood on a stage and literally sided with the Russian government over the United States of America,” Rittereiser said. “To me that’s treasonous behavior.”

“We’re in bold times as a nation,” he said. “The notion that we have to fit within political confines … that’s old politics. We can be for universal health care while being pragmatic and understanding concerns of working-class people, and connecting on both sides of the Cascade divide.”

Although this is his first run for public office, Rittereiser was introduced to politics early. He recalls door-belling as an 8-year-old with his mother, Wendy Rittereiser, who served as an Ellensburg City Council member.

Rittereiser graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in economics and then took a year off, working for U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett.

After receiving a law degree from DePaul University, Rittereiser was hired by the King County prosecutor’s office. He started out in district court, trying misdemeanor cases such as DUIs and thefts.

In about a year, he moved to the special-assault unit, prosecuting sexual assault and child abuse, and later to the violent-crimes unit.

Mark Larson, chief of the office’s criminal division, called Rittereiser a “very talented guy” and “a trial superstar” who was poached by a private law firm after about three years.

Since 2014, Rittereiser has worked for the national employment-law firm HKM, which represents workers suing employers for alleged discrimination or mistreatment.

“It was the best hire we have ever made,” said Don Heyrich, the firm’s co-founder. He said Rittereiser combines a great work ethic with “immense self-confidence and a really innate sense of justice.”

In one case that made headlines, Rittereiser represented a former professor at Northwest Christian University in Oregon, who sued saying she was fired by the school for becoming pregnant while unmarried. A judge ruled the woman had been unlawfully discriminated against based on her marital status and the lawsuit was later settled.

Rittereiser says he’s long had his eye on a run for elected office, and decided to make the leap after Trump’s election. He moved from Seattle to Issaquah last March, just a few months before launching his campaign.

According to property records, he and his wife still own a condo in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood, which he says they’re renting out. Rittereiser said the move out of Seattle is permanent, regardless of the outcome of the congressional race.

While criticizing Trump and Republicans, Rittereiser said he thinks Democrats also have lost touch with much of America, becoming seen as a party of coastal elites.

Rittereiser did not fault any particular Democratic policy, but messaging.

“We have lost the branding and marketing game that Republicans have been really good at for a long time,” he said. “They have convinced people to vote against their interests.”