U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer has sailed to easy wins in his past three reelection campaigns in Washington’s 6th Congressional District.
In 2018, the Gig Harbor Democrat spent just $16,000 in radio and digital ads during his entire campaign in a lopsided contest against a little-known Republican.
But ahead of the Aug. 4 primary, Kilmer has poured more than 25 times that amount — more than $400,000 — into TV ads alone, with an additional $155,000 in digital ads and $22,000 in direct mail, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings.
Kilmer has unleashed the spending blitz as he faces an energetic, underdog primary challenge from the left. Democratic candidate Rebecca Parson, channeling the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, criticizes Kilmer for declining to embrace sweeping progressive policies, including Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.
Seeking a fifth term, Kilmer also faces familiar-looking challenges from four Republican opponents, with Gig Harbor resident Elizabeth Kreiselmaier securing the most money and endorsements. But the 6th District, which runs from Tacoma west across the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas, has been held by Democrats since 1965 and is not projected to flip red this fall.
Parson’s path to get through the primary is narrow as Kilmer has dominated endorsements from Democratic organizations, labor groups and elected leaders. Still, her campaign points to the possibility that four Republicans on the ballot could divide the GOP vote, allowing her to place second and face Kilmer in November.
Kilmer, first elected in 2012, has risen among House Democrats, securing a spot on the powerful Appropriations Committee, and chairs the centrist New Democrat Coalition, which has 104 members, including all of Washington’s House Democrats with the exception of Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle. Parson has raised $255,000 — more than all of Kilmer’s challengers in the past three election cycles combined — and is fielding an aggressive volunteer effort, which her campaign says has placed more than 500,000 calls to voters.
“There is a lot of progressive frustration with Representative Kilmer,” said Parson, a Tacoma resident and activist who has worked on tenant rights and serves on the Tacoma Area Commission on Disabilities.
She has hit Kilmer for signing a letter to congressional leaders in June with dozens of other lawmakers, which expressed concern with the exploding federal debt and looming insolvency of trust funds for programs including Social Security.
The letter said Congress should consider appointing bipartisan “rescue committees” to recommend reforms, pointing to a proposal led by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called the TRUST Act. Social Security advocates say that proposal could pave the way for raising the retirement age and future benefit cuts.
Parson said she wasn’t surprised Republicans signed the letter, but asked, “Why would someone representing a congressional district where 20 percent of people are over the age of 65 support this letter?”
Kilmer calls Parson’s attack dishonest, noting he has been endorsed by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. He has not co-sponsored the House version of the TRUST Act and has instead signed on to another bill, the Social Security 2100 Act, which would boost benefits and raise the threshold at which benefits are taxed.
“In my view, Social Security is one of the most successful policies in the history of this country,” Kilmer said. He said the U.S. needs “to spend what we need to spend to get through this pandemic,” but that elected leaders must also “look to some of these issues around our long-term fiscal health.”
Parson also criticizes Kilmer for raking in millions of dollars in campaign funds from business interests, including defense contractors and pharmaceutical companies. “I think you have to put your money where your mouth is,” said Parson, who has vowed not to accept donations from corporate PACs or lobbyists.
Kilmer has raised $1.8 million for his latest reelection effort, and is sitting on nearly $3 million in cash accumulated over the past few years. He has raised nearly $750,000 from business-related PACs since 2019, and an additional $127,000 from labor-backed PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But Kilmer has received accolades for his efforts to reduce the role of big money in politics and increase political ad transparency. He was one of four members of Congress to receive the inaugural Teddy Roosevelt Courage Award last year from Issue One, a bipartisan national organization dedicated to campaign finance transparency and reform.
Kilmer also defends his fundraising, saying he has sent $750,000 over the past three years to candidates and organizations including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which helped Democrats regain control of the U.S. House in 2018.
“That is a difference between my opponent and me. She says the DCCC is a force for evil,” Kilmer said. He also said Parson has lost support among Democrats because she publicly called for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to quit the race in early May. “Undermining Joe Biden … that’s Trump’s strategy,” Kilmer said.
Parson was reacting at the time to allegations by Tara Reade, a former Senate aide who said Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993, a charge Biden has denied. “#JoeBiden must withdraw,” Parson tweeted on May 1, calling Reade’s allegations “part of a pattern of behavior” by Biden and saying Democrats would defeat Trump “by defending our moral standards.”
In a recent interview, Parson, who had supported Sanders, said she’s now “fine” with voting for Biden in order to defeat Trump. While Parson hammers Kilmer as a squishy corporate Democrat, Kreiselmaier portrays him as a left-wing extremist.
A former education researcher, Kreiselmaier condemned Kilmer for voting to impeach President Donald Trump. “He supports the far left, radical socialist, big government agenda,” she said in a campaign video.
Kreiselmaier, who declined to be interviewed, has raised $79,000, including more than $12,000 of her own money, according to FEC filings.
Three other Republicans on the ballot, StephanBrodhead, Chris Welton and Johny Alberg have reported zero dollars in contributions, and local GOP groups and leaders have largely united behind Kreiselmaier with endorsements.