1st District: DelBene and Koster will fight to the finish

The state's Democrats choose a moderate to run against a Republican, who is known as a conservative but who has refused to take a no-tax-increase pledge.
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Click to enlarge. Final redistricting plan for Washington state's congressional districts.

The state's Democrats choose a moderate to run against a Republican, who is known as a conservative but who has refused to take a no-tax-increase pledge.

From the moment of its birth last year to the day of its first primary, Washington's First Congressional District — shaped ideologically if not geographically like an hour glass — seemed headed for this: a general election pitting a conservative farmer from the north against a liberal high-tech exec from the south.

That would be Republican John Koster of Arlington and Democrat Susan DelBene of Medina.

Koster predictably headed a pack of five Democrats and an independent in Tuesday's voting, with 43.7 percent of the ballots — he was the only Republican entered. The big prize was the Democratic nomination, which was going to DelBene with 23.3 percent (as of shortly before 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 7). Her closest competitor among five Democrats was Darcy Burner with 13 percent.

Koster was winning in the rural north, DelBene in the high-tech corridor in the south. Skirmishing was most active in the "neck" of the hour glass, suburban Snohomish County, expected by observers to be the ideological hinge of the district carved out last December by the state commission that drew new boundaries for Washington's nine congressional districts following the 2010 census.

Redistricting commissioners described the First as the most competitive of all 10 districts. But to make it competitive they lashed together two very different neighborhoods. In the north, rural sections of both Whatcom and Skagit counties and northern Snohomish are predictably Republican and have two of the most-conservative delegations in the Washington Legislature. In the south, the district includes Redmond and Kirkland and stetches into wealthy suburbs such as Medina — an area that likes Democrats, tends to vote liberal, and is very very much into high-tech businesses epitomized by Microsoft.

In early counting, Koster had 39 percent in King, 43 percent in Snohomish, 44 percent in Skagit, and 54 percent in Whatcom. DelBene had 23 percent in King, 26 percent in Skagit, 24 percent in Snohomish, and 22 percent in Whatcom. Koster also won the short term to replace Congressman Jay Inslee, who resigned his First District seat to run for governor; Koster polled 34.7 percent in that contest; DelBene had 25 percent.

The county-by-county results emphasize that Koster has problems in King County, which had about 40 percent of the votes counted at 9 p.m. and DelBene must pick up more ground as the district moves north. But in only one county — Whatcom — does Koster outpoll the Democratic crowd in the primary.

Obviously, Koster will pick up some votes from defeated Democrats, particularly from his Snohomish County neighbor, Steve Hobbs, who polled 11 percent in his home county but did poorly elsewhere. DelBene can expect to hold most of the other Democratic votes, for she is more centrist than Darcy Burner, her closest competitor, and the other two Democrats, Laura Ruderman and Darshan Rauniyar, fared poorly.

Koster is as rural as his neighbors in the north; DelBene as high-tech and educated as her neighbors in the south. She has personal wealth, which she used liberally in the primary; Koster figures to attract Republican funding from outside the state as the race figures to be one of those that could determine control of the U. S. House in 2013.

Koster clearly cannot match DelBene's personal wealth or connection to high-tech millionaires; his ability to attract big money for the fall campaign will rely on how seriously the national Republican leadership takes his chances. The Republican National Congressional Campaign Committee has yet to publicly commit, and none of the super-Pacs have weighed in, but the open seat has to be on the GOP's radar. Koster has done well in two previous races, both against Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash), in 2000 and 2010. He did not attract large party donations either time; the 2000 race was for an open seat. One item that should help him is that his primary race drew 703 individual contributors, trailing only Darcy Burner's 901 among candidates. DelBene drew money from 541 individuals.

It is difficult to assess the impact of personal wealth in this race. The southern end of the district has some of the state's wealthiest neighborhoods, and some residents have chipped in for DelBene. Her willingness to spend nearly $2 million of her own money (and still counting) on her campaign could be a matter for Republican attacks, but their ticket is headed by Mitt Romney, whose wealth far outpaces DelBene. A KING 5 poll found 79 percent of voters said a candidate's wealth is not a factor in deciding who gets their vote for Congress.

A recent KING-TV survey showed the November race to be a dead heat between Koster and either DelBene or Burner. Polling showed Koster, however with a high favorability rating: 28 favorable to 14 percent unfavorable; that compared with DelBene's 23-25 and Burner's 19-29. Those numbers will shift as Koster becomes better known in the southern part of the district and DelBene emerges as the sole Democrat on the ballot.

Koster is aware that he cannot win if he is identified with Tea Party activists; that was surely on his mind when, in the Seattle City Club debate he said he would not take the "Grover Nordquist Pledge" to oppose any and all federal tax increases. That puts him in lonely land on the GOP ballot; all four incumbent Republican members of Congress from Washington have signed the pledge, as have three GOP challengers, according to the Americans for Tax Reform Web site. No Washington Congressional Democrats or challengers have signed. "Fundamental tax reform" is needed, Koster said, and that could involve closing tax loopholes that would anger the no-tax lobby (Koster had signed the pledge in his previous federal campaigns).

Koster is conservative, but his three terms in the Washington House and 11 years on the Snohomish County Council, all with a moderate electorate, have seen him work across party lines. Despite nearly two decades of political office, Koster will run as an outsider, a former dairyman and an advocate of small government. Democrats ignored his conservative social views in the primary as they battled each other; look for mention of Koster's anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage positions in a district where they may not play well. Koster also supports charter schools and the Gateway Pacific coal-export terminal; he has opposed cap-and-trade energy legislation. The candidates will present two vastly different platforms to District One voters.

Somewhat ironically, DelBene has much less governmental experience than Koster, the champion of small government. She served as head of the Washington Department of Revenue for several months, appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire. She ran unsuccessfully in 2010 against Congressman Dave Reichert. Prior to that her experience was in the world of high-tech, as an executive at Microsoft and then at two start-up high-tech firms. She has campaigned as a low-key problem-solver in the mode of Sen. Maria Cantwell, who also has a high-tech background; DelBene's views on social issues are liberal, almost entirely in contrast to those of Koster.

Based on their most recent Federal Elections Commission reports, both DelBene and Koster raised nearly half a million dollars from individuals for the primary race; the difference between DelBene's $482,044 and Koster's $439,743 as of July 17 was the degree to which DelBene was able to tap wealthy donors. She drew $10,000 from four large donors: Microsoft billionaires Bill Gates and Steve Balmer and spouses; Amerish and Janine Bera of Elk Grove, Calif., physicians; Joseph and Karyn Barer, Mercer Island, Lake Partners Strategy consultants; David and Valerie Robinson, Bellevue, retired. Another 22 individuals or spousal combinations contributed at least $5,000. Koster got $20,000 from Charles and Dee Burnett and Charles Burnett III, Seattle and Stanwood, all listed as retired; $10,000 from Andria and Gerrit Boyle, Lynden, Alaska Structures; and $5,000 from Nancy and Rick Alvord, Seattle investors.


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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.