Update: Former U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert announced Tuesday that he would not run for governor in 2020.
By this time two years ago, a pack of Democrats was already competing to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert in Washington’s 8th Congressional District, in an early sign of partisan fervor for the 2018 midterm elections that flipped control of the House of Representatives.
Reichert bowed out of that race, leading to the election of Kim Schrier, an Issaquah pediatrician who became the first Democrat to represent the historically Republican district, defeating former state Sen. Dino Rossi in the most expensive House race in state history.
With the 2020 election season rapidly approaching — and a shot at reclaiming the seat — Republicans have yet to field a formidable challenger against Schrier.
The GOP candidate deficit extends to other marquee 2020 races, evidence of the challenges facing the party in a state where President Donald Trump’s deep unpopularity is expected to be a drag down the ballot. The GOP has not produced a top-tier candidate for governor, despite arguing that Gov. Jay Inslee is vulnerable in his bid for a third term. And no Republican so far is running for attorney general against Democrat Bob Ferguson.
That picture could change, depending in large part on Reichert.
The former seven-term congressman from Auburn “is considering” a return to politics with a challenge of Inslee for governor in 2020, said state Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich, adding “he’s certainly not running at this point.” Whether or not Reichert runs, he said “voters deserve an alternative — a viable alternative.”
Reichert, who has been working for the lobbying firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs since January, could not be reached for comment. GOP sources say he broached the idea of running for governor a couple of weeks ago at a barbecue with longtime political associates. The talk intensified last week, but it remains unclear whether Reichert will take the plunge.
He has had a history of stoking speculation about bids for governor and the U.S. Senate, only to back away. In 2015, he decided against challenging Inslee’s bid for a second term the next year after viewing results of a poll.
The state GOP has the longest gubernatorial election losing streak in the nation. Barring a shift in their candidate field — or the national political climate — they are likely in for another rough year, some Republicans acknowledge.
King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn said last week Republicans are “still licking their wounds from the midterm beat-downs,” which saw Democrats take the U.S. House and expand their majorities in the Washington state Legislature.
“There is very little energy right now for candidates,” said Dunn, a Republican, adding “that may change.”
Dunn previously considered running for the 8th Congressional District seat held for more than a decade by his mother, the late U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn. But he’s taking a pass. “I am 100% out,” he said.
The only candidate who has filed with the Federal Election Commission to challenge Schrier is Keith Swank, a Seattle police captain who lives in Puyallup and ran for U.S. Senate in 2018, getting 2% of the vote in the primary. Swank has raised $505 to Schrier’s $1 million.
Another Republican candidate, a tech worker and military veteran who has not previously run for office, has been lining up support and is expected to announce his candidacy for the 8th District seat in early September.
“I honestly believe we will retake the 8th,” Heimlich said, arguing Schrier has shown herself too liberal for the moderate district with her recent embrace of an impeachment inquiry into Trump.
Schrier said Republicans are exaggerating her impeachment stance. “What I have supported is a deep inquiry into all of the potential criminal activity of this president and his colleagues,” she said, saying the Trump administration was stonewalling regular congressional inquiries.
As for her reelection bid, Schrier said she’s not sensing enthusiasm among Republicans comparable to what Democrats were feeling two years ago. “There was a real passion and panic about the direction of our country. I don’t think that the Republicans are feeling that same drive,” she said.
Schrier’s win was powered by big margins in King County suburban cities, including Issaquah, Sammamish and Auburn, overwhelming the rural, Republican-leaning swaths of the district, which runs across the Cascade Mountains to include Kittitas and Chelan counties.
Suburban support for Republicans, which had been declining for years, reached a nadir in 2018, leading to Schrier’s win and to the defeat of the few remaining GOP state legislators representing districts in King County. About one-third of the state’s 4 million voters reside in King County, which has been trending increasingly Democratic for decades.
Stuart Elway, a longtime independent pollster, said he’s seen no signs of that trend reversing itself. In his most recent poll, conducted for the online news site Crosscut, Elway found nearly twice as many voters now identify as Democrats (41%) than Republicans (21%) — a near-record advantage in the decades he’s tracked those numbers. “This is shaping up as a pretty bad year for Republicans to run with Trump at the head of the ticket,” Elway said.
That helps explain why some better-known Republicans, such as Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier and state House Republican leader J.T. Wilcox, have not taken the leap into major 2020 races.
Republicans now hold just two statewide elected offices, with Secretary of State Kim Wyman and Treasurer Duane Davidson. Democrats have yet to announce a challenger for Wyman, but state Rep. Mike Pellicciotti of Federal Way is running for treasurer, and already has raised $90,000, compared with Davidson’s $17,000.
With Reichert on the fence in the governor’s race, the highest-profile Republican candidate for that spot so far is state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, who announced his run at Seattle City Hall, referring to the seat of government in the state’s largest city as the “belly of the beast.”
Loren Culp, the police chief of Republic in Ferry County, also has announced. He made headlines last year for saying he wouldn’t enforce a gun-control measure, Initiative 1639, passed by voters.
Former Bothell mayor and real-estate developer Joshua Freed also filed documents with the Public Disclosure Commission allowing him to raise money. In an interview last week, Freed said he’s still considering whether to follow through with a campaign. If he does run, Freed said he’d focus on the failure by the state and cities to address “out-of-control homelessness” and enforce the law.
Anton Sakharov, a Maple Valley program manager, also has filed to raise money for a bid.
Heimlich said more candidates could be in the works, and said he’s “optimistic about the governor’s race in particular because a third term is difficult.” He said Inslee’s recently ended presidential campaign and its associated taxpayer costs “sends a message to voters about where his priorities lie.”
But state Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski said Republicans will have a hard time making the case against Inslee, citing rankings that show Washington as a top place to do business in the nation and a recent upgrade by Moody’s of the state’s credit rating. Inslee also has signed into law a suite of progressive legislation such as a clean-power mandate and paid family leave.
“I think it’s a very difficult record to run against and he is a very skilled elected official,” said Podlodowski.
Mike Vaska, an attorney and chairman of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, said he and other GOP moderates have been wrestling with how to find state candidates who can attract voters despite Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket.
Vaska said he has been asked to run for attorney general but has not made any decisions. He previously ran unsuccessfully for the position in 2004.
He said there arguably ought to be “a tail wind” for Republicans given frustrations on issues such as the homelessness crisis and management problems at some state agencies.
“If you took the national equation out, this could be a change election in Washington,” Vaska said. “Part of our mission is to figure out how to sharpen and distinguish the Northwest brand of Republican from the national brand.”
That’s still, Vaska acknowledged, a work in progress.