It was the echo heard across the Cascades.
The recent retirement announcement by seven-term U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert opens Washington’s first truly competitive congressional race since 2010. The 67-year-old Reichert was hardly the most obvious contender to step aside nationwide, especially after a 20-point win in 2016. But with Republican retirements mounting nationwide, Reichert becomes the latest in a series of races putting the GOP on the defensive.
The question is: Can Democrats actually take advantage of the opportunity? This is a district that narrowly voted for both Hillary Clinton (46 percent to Trump’s 43 percent) and Barack Obama (49 percent to Romney’s 47 percent). It’s also a district in flux, torn by diverging political and demographic trends.
Let’s take a look at what those trends are — and what the data foretells about what could be 2018’s hottest local race.
A changed, and changing, district
First things first: This is not the district that elected Reichert the first time around, and that matters a lot.
The 8th District that elected Reichert had different boundaries than the district we have today. Reichert was first elected in 2004, defeating Democratic talk radio show host Dave Ross. Back then, the 8th included most of the Eastside, with a significant store of votes cast by areas like Bellevue and Mercer Island. About four-fifths of the vote was cast from King County.
After the 2010 redistricting process, the 8th shifted east and shrunk, reflecting population growth and the creation of a new 10th District around Olympia. In doing so, the 8th lost most of the Eastside, retaining only a relatively small swath around Issaquah and Sammamish. The district also crossed the Cascade barrier, taking in Republican counties like Chelan (Wenatchee) and Kittitas (Ellensburg), plus a portion of ruby-red Douglas County (East Wenatchee). The proportion of votes cast from King County cratered from 81 percent in 2004 to only 59 percent in 2016. This district was much safer for Reichert, who went from competitive elections to a series of 20-point blowouts.
But there's another way the district has shifted: many voters in it have changed their partisanship.
Many of the GOP gains have been helped by the new prominence of eastern Pierce County. Booming growth in Republican strongholds like Graham and South Hill helped to bolster the GOP’s prospects for years to come. The Pierce portion of the 8th plays to the party’s recent demographic advantages. Driven by a relatively high proportion of white voters without college degrees, the Pierce part of the district swung from a 7-point win for Mitt Romney in 2012 (51.7 percent to 44.3 percent against Barack Obama) to a 17-point margin for Donald Trump in 2016 (53.1 percent to 35.7 percent over Hillary Clinton). The Pierce County portion of the 8th is now more Republican than the Eastern Washington portion.
Why are Democrats excited by the 8th this year, then? The answer lies in King County. In the remaining portions of the Eastside, Trump absolutely fell through the floor, losing Sammamish by 37 percentage points, Issaquah by 38 and Snoqualmie by 26. These margins were up between 15 and 25 points versus 2012. Those were huge swings, and Democrats hope they will translate into an anti-Trump surge in next year’s midterm Congressional elections, which are typically seen as a referendum on the incumbent president’s party.
Democrats aren’t the only ones to sense opportunity for them here, especially among college-educated suburban voters. Former state GOP party chair Chris Vance is now a political independent and lives in the 8th. He thinks a Republican congressional candidate will find it “impossible to escape the national brand” of Trump. “Democrats will spend millions saying the issue is Trump, Trump, Trump, and they’re right: It is.”
Vance knows the difficulties of the Trump issue first-hand. When he ran against Sen. Patty Murray as an anti-Trump Republican in 2016, he learned what happens when you cross the GOP base. “The Trump problem can’t be managed. There’s nothing you can say. If you say ‘I repudiate Donald Trump,’ the base will kill you. When I came out against Trump my fundraising stopped.
“If you say I support him and am all in, that’s insane” in the King County parts of the district. He believes the 8th is “absolutely competitive.”
A Republican stronghold?
Not everyone is so sanguine about Democratic prospects. Among the skeptics is widely respected Republican consultant Alex Hays, who is also the former head of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington. Hays argued that Trump’s loss in the district “created a false impression among Democrats that it’s flippable.”
“It’s a Republican district, which voted for down-ballot Republicans by a wide margin,” Hays wrote in an email, arguing that the race is “effectively over.” Hays also lauded the strength of Republican candidate Dino Rossi: “Add to this Dino Rossi's robust campaign infrastructure, his work ethic and name ID and it's essentially a done deal.”
Hays is certainly correct about the district's tendency to vote Republican downticket. Outside of Clinton’s three-point win in 2016, the only Democrats to win the 8th were Sen. Murray and Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, both incumbents. Both Murray and Kreidler approximately matched Clinton’s 3-point margin. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee lost the district to Republican challenger Bill Bryant by 7 points (53 percent to 46 percent). Hays is also correct that Trump underperformed in the 8th relative to other Republican candidates. In the presidential race, the 8th was 13 points more Republican than the state as a whole. In other races, the figure was closer to 16 points.
Hays thinks the Democrats are leading the public on about their viability in the 8th. “If it really were competitive, then a credible Dem would enter the race," he said. Right now, you have a pack of sacrificial lambs covered in the mint jelly of spin.”
Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican who was part of the bipartisan commission that drew the district’s boundaries, has a somewhat similar take.
Is the 8th a safe GOP district? “Of course it’s not a one-party safe district,” Gorton said. “There’s only one in the state — the 4th [running through the center of Eastern Washington] not the 8th. Is it flippable? In theory it is. It won’t though…[Dino] Rossi will win. I would say the district leans Republican.”
Why is Dino Rossi such a strong candidate?
“Fierce support of people who feel he was jobbed-out of the governorship," Gorton said. "He is very, very popular among the Republican base. Has enough experience in state politics, including budget matters … so that he can speak with some authority on issues when he gets to Congress.” And Gorton says Rossi is “a very hard worker.”
Gorton says the top-two primary will also help Rossi because with multiple Democrats in the primary, he's likely to finish first. “First-place finishers in primaries are overwhelmingly successful in the general. I regard him as absolutely the best candidate we could have secured.”
Rossi somewhat reluctantly supported Trump at last year's Republican national convention, but he also criticized a last-minute move against Trump by other delegates.
The case for Democratic takeover
It’s quite correct, as Hays says, that Trump was a major liability in parts of the district. Trump absolutely fell through the floor on King County’s Eastside, and many of those voters may vote for a Republican candidate like Dino Rossi.
The problem Hays describes recently afflicted Democrats in a June special election in Georgia, where Mitt Romney had won the congressional district by 23 points, but Donald Trump won by only 1.5 points. Still, Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff by 3.6 points. Despite slightly higher Democratic enthusiasm, Handel ultimately retained enough non-Trump-voting Republican-leaners.
The scenario in Washington’s 8th is different, though. While many of Clinton’s voters were former Romney voters in places like Sammamish and Issaquah, East Pierce County also had a formidable number of Obama voters who swung Trump. Washington’s 8th didn’t even vote Romney, let alone by 23 points. It voted for Obama by 1.5 points. So, both parties have some newly acquired voters to lose.
Another problem facing Republicans: Their new converts may not show up. Polling indicates that the 2018 midterm elections may see a larger education gap than ever before, and President Trump’s showing among college-educated white voters has deteriorated since the election. In 2016, Democratic showing in the 8th was highly correlated with education. The most Democratic communities were also the ones with the most college degrees – Issaquah (61 percent of adults) and Sammamish (73 percent). In Republican strongholds, the rates are much lower. The rate is only 22 percent in Eastern Pierce County. An education gap in midterm turnout would be a boon for Democrats.
All told, it is tough to precisely handicap Washington’s 8th. Local GOP activists would like to believe that Washington voters will continue to treat their local candidates different than their presidential counterparts, even in congressional races. Democrats would like to believe that the headwinds of national trends are fully behind them.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle — and that means a competitive race here. And, depending on national trends, the 8th District voting could be pivotal to control of the U.S. Congress.
A note on this story previously mentioned Tola Marts, an Issaquah City Council member since 2010, as the lone Democratic candidate holding an elective office. He dropped out of the race on Oct. 2.