The strange new world of the 1st Congressional District

Republican John Koster has an easy road to his party's nomination for a congressional seat while five Democrats stage a brawl. It's wild even if Dennis Kucinich doesn't land here.

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Members of Congress are meeting at the capitol building in D.C. this week, to debate payroll taxes.

Republican John Koster has an easy road to his party's nomination for a congressional seat while five Democrats stage a brawl. It's wild even if Dennis Kucinich doesn't land here.

Kucinich Kraziness descended on us again this week, as the indefatigable Ohio congressman harkened once more to the Horace Greeley challenge to "Go West, Young Man." Kucinich, no longer young and soon to be no longer a congressman, is eyeing Washington's three open Congressional seats and wondering which one needs him the most.

Earth to Kucinich: The district that needs you the least is District 1, which has enough challenges of its own, particularly among Democrats. From a mob scene of up to eight (who's counting?) in the euphoria of an open seat, it looks as if the Demo flash mob is down to five, at least until filing is completed on May 18.

Republicans, meanwhile, seem to have cleared the field for John Koster, a dependable if not flashy conservative who nearly defeated Congressman Rick Larsen in 2010 and should be able to run very well in the northern half of a competitive district that is — strictly in political terms — a bit like an hourglass. That is, most of the Republicans are in the north, with a narrow section of up-for-grabs voters in the middle and a lot of Democrats in the southern portion of the district.

Kucinich, if he were to be foolish enough to enter, could conceivably split what looks like an evenly divided Democratic field and, relying on name familiarity, get the Democratic nomination. But he would be demolished in November; it's hard to imagine him getting 20 percent of the vote north of Marysville.

District 1 grew out of the state Redistricting Commission's work to create a tenth congressional district in Washington, thanks to population growth. Four partisans appointed by legislative leaders strived mightily to create new districts and District 1 was drafted by Republican Slade Gorton and Democrat Tim Ceis. Gorton, who has been the GOP's go-to guy on redistricting for decades, declared, "It may be the most evenly divided congressional district in the United States of America."

The district essentially takes the eastern, rural portion of Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom counties from the old District 2 represented by Larsen and puts them in the new District 1, bringing in northern King County with its high-tech suburbs and Democratic voters — and candidates.

As a result, three of the five surviving Democrat candidates (after dropouts along the way) are former Microsoft employees; the fourth, state Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens, is in that "up for grabs zone: and is the lone conservative Democrat running. The "Microsoftie" candidates are Darcy Burner and Suzan DelBene, both past candidates against Congressman Dave Reichert, and Laura Ruderman, a former legislator. The fifth Democrat, untested politically, is Darshan Rauniyar, a Nepal-born high-tech entrepreneur and Snohomish County resident.

Republicans — the 2012 presidential primary notwithstanding — are often more disciplined in keeping primaries manageable, and District 1 saw Koster filing early and two would-be challengers dropping by the wayside. Looking at past voting in what is now District 1, Koster will be formidable. In 2010 he took 49 percent from Larsen of the overall district and carried Snohomish County, home base of both men. In 2012, the traditional Democratic stronghold of Everett stays in Larsen's district; Koster gets the Republican side of the county.

He also gets the Republican side of Whatcom and Skagit, with the addition of Mount Vernon, which normally goes Democratic. All the other Democratic strongholds of the old District 2 (which Koster nearly won in 2010) remain in District 2; Koster need not worry about liberals in Bellingham, San Juan County, Anacortes, and Everett.

Rural parts of northwest Washington have chafed at being represented by a Democrat for many years, and figure to unite behind Koster, who is well known for his years on the Snohomish County Council and his runs against Larsen (2000 and 2010). Koster is also the king of freeway signs — posting large signs in the right-of-way between I-5 and parallel state roads.

Koster's hometown values and background (he was raised in Arlington and ran a dairy farm for many years) will play well in the northern part of the district; he's firmly in support of an export terminal for coal in northern Whatcom and labels critics as "radicals." Koster is also firmly anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, and opposed to the Obama Administration on health care and other major initiatives.

To put District 1 in perspective, an analysis of the 2008 gubernatorial election is useful as a guide to political allegiance. In rural Whatcom, Republican Dino Rossi won over Gov. Chris Gregoire by 10 points; in rural Skagit, Rossi won by 4 points. Those areas send solidly conservative Republicans to the Legislature; all six members are GOP stalwarts.

Snohomish County is the "up for grabs" center of the hourglass with suburbs rapidly outvoting rural areas in the new District 1. Three major suburban cities are in the new District 1: Bothell (which straddles the King-Snohomish County line) supported Gregoire in 2008 by 4 percentage points; Lake Stevens supported Rossi by 5 points and Monroe supported Gregoire by eight points. But Koster won most of Snohomish County in 2010 against Larsen; despite Larsen majorities in Everett, Koster won the county, 51 percent to 49 percent. So he figures to run well in the important swing area of Snohomish County.

Koster is a proven fundraiser. He raised $1.1 million in 2010 against Larsen and this cycle has raised $337,875 and has $245,391 in the bank. He has been successful in attracting funds from within northwestern Washington and has little out-of-state money. He got $10,000 each from Charles and Dee Burnett, Stanwood; Mike and Annette Impola, Mill Creek; Douglas and Bonnie Roulstone, Snohomish; Daryl and Samia Staehle, Arlington. If the district is targeted by Republican national committees — as is likely — look for Koster to raise well above than his 2010 treasury.

Democrats must come out of King County with a big margin and win many of the swing voters in Snohomish. Again looking at Gregoire-Rossi as a benchmark, voters in the Kirkland-Woodinville area contained in Legislative District 45 favored Gregoire by a 53-47 percent margin and in District 48 (Redmond, Bellevue suburbs) the governor was favored 57-43. Those legislative districts (2008 borders) make up the King County portion of District 1.

With two wealthy Microsoft retirees (DelBene and Burner) in the race, funding will be critical for other Democrats.

DelBene spent nearly $2.3 million of personal funds in an attempt to defeat Reichert in 2010; as of March 31 she has not put any personal funds into her race but has raised $372,419, mostly from individuals; she has $317,723 still in the bank. The DelBene list of individual contributors reveals the problem for other candidates in the race, with a number of donors already contributing $10,000 or more; several were associated with Microsoft. CEO Steve Balmer and his wife contributed $20,000. Others at the $20,000 level were Joseph and Karyn Barer of Mercer Island and Amerish and Janine Bera, physicians of Elk Grove, Calif.

Burner, who made her Microsoft money in marketing, has worked in Washington, D.C., as president and executive director of Progressive and the Progressive Congress Action Fund, two nonprofit liberal-activist groups. She has raised $306,727 as of March 31 and had $114,640 remaining. Her early funding includes several significant checks from outside the state (none over $5,000 however), and she should be able to expand that if she gets through the primary.

Also as of March 31, Ruderman has raised $362,115 and she had $220,026 left in the bank. Her contributions also were linked to Microsoft, where she had been a website producer and program manager; she spent three terms in the Washington House and lives in Kirkland.

Neither of the two men in the Democratic contest has a Microsoft connection, but Darshan Rauniyar has a high-tech connection. He helped found Flash Ventures, developing a marketing program to place thumb drives in checkout lines at drug stores. Rauniyar has an M.B.A. from Portland State University, and came to the United States 20 years ago from Nepal. He's heavily involved in Democratic politics in Snohomish County and lives in the Bothell area. Rauniyar has raised $169,714 as of March 31; most has been from outside the state, seemingly related to his Nepalese background.

Hobbs, a retired Army officer with service in Kosovo and Iraq, positions himself as a Democratic centrist. He collected a number of endorsements from Democratic leaders in the Legislature, but his leadership in the "Roadkill Caucus "of moderate and conservative Democrats may have soured that relationship in the special session. Hobbs was not among the three Democratic senators who joined with Republicans on a critical budget vote, however. He did vote for same-sex marriage in the past session. As of a check during the day Monday (April 16), Hobbs did not have a a March 31 financial report filed (at least it had not been posted online); as of Dec. 31 he had raised $124,392 and had $86,573 remaining. Alone among the Democrats, he had received significant PAC money, the $32,100 coming primarily from the financial industry. (An Associated Press report on campaign totals, covering only this year, mentions $73,673 in new funds for him since Jan. 1 with nearly $99,000 in the bank.)

Looking ahead, both Hobbs and Rauniyar may have funding troubles, Hobbs because he has irked some of the Democratic leadership and Rauniyar because he lacks, at least in the early campaign, sources of in-state money. No Democrat has raised significant money in the northern portion of District 1; in contrast, Koster has funding across the district.

The three female candidates on the Democratic side appear to bring very similar outlooks to the race, coming down on the liberal side of most issues. Burner in particular has been popular in the liberal blogosphere and has national networks. All three have had successful high-tech careers. Burner and DelBene in particular will have trouble getting rural voters to relate to their fast-track histories.

It's too early for a lot of joint appearances, but the Democrats did one March 23 before an Everett labor audience. Both Joel Connelly of and Jerry Cornfield of the Everett Herald came away with good words in particular for Ruderman and Rauniyar, who seemed to have more impressive personal stories than their rivals. The veteran Connelly called them the most impressive of the night.

Democrats will be forced to do a lot of campaigning before the August primary, with Koster all but assured one of the two top spots on the fall ballot. A Democratic frontrunner is a long way from emerging.

Dennis Kucinich would seriously scramble the race, scaring everyone but Koster, who would doubtless welcome a "carpetbagger" on the Democratic side of the ballot. Kucinich could claim that second ballot spot only if the five local Democrats split the votes evenly, allowing a hard core of Kucinich supporters to prevail. But most of the Kucinich hardcore, at least by my reckoning, probably stayed in the Second District under redistricting.

Koster should have easy sailing until after the August primary. His only fear would be a moderate Republican from the southern part of the district defying party orthodoxy and making a late entry. Even in this strange year, that's not likely.

This story has been updated since it first appeared to correct a transposition of donation totals for two candidates and to give additional details on individual donors to one candidate.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.