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Schrier, Rossi vie for split-ticket voters in sole 8th District debate

Trump surrogate or member of “The Resistance”? In Ellensburg, the candidates lean to the center while painting their opponents in extremes.

Congressional candidates Kim Schrier, left, and Dino Rossi answer questions during the 8th District debate at Central Washington University on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

It’s one of the most watched congressional races in the country. And as election day nears, Democrat Kim Schrier and Republican Dino Rossi have stepped up their attacks, harnessing millions of dollars in donations and outside spending to convince voters only they can be trusted to represent Washington state's 8th District in Washington D.C. In an Ellensburg auditorium Wednesday night, the two got their one and only chance to lob their grenades in person.

Rossi, whose time in the Washington State Senate and three bids for higher office have given him the name recognition of an incumbent, sought to cast himself as a traditional Republican. He told of his immigrant family and their mining roots and growing up “eating Hamburger Helper without the hamburger.” He spun his success in real-estate as a classic American story rooted in modest beginnings and hard work. And on policy, he toed a Reagan-esque policy platform built around free-market ideology and entrepreneurialism.

On President Donald Trump, he said, "If I agree with him, I agree with him. If I don't I don't. I am not running to be The Apprentice."

He sought to create a marked contrast between himself and Schrier by accusing his opponent of marching “in more angry protests in Seattle than parades in the district” — using her membership in “The Resistance” as an attack.

Schrier, on the other hand, did what she could to tie Rossi to the least traditional of Republicans, President Trump, at any chance she could get. She called attention to Rossi’s role as a Trump delegate at the Republican National Convention in 2016 and raised the issues of the president’s tax cuts and attempted repeals of the Affordable Care Act. In a district that has historically split its vote between a Democrat for President and Republican for Congress, she was clearly attempting to bring those split-ticket voters over to her side by characterizing Rossi as a Trump surrogate.

At the same time, Schrier trotted out her credentials as a pediatrician, portraying herself as a would-be representative who is in tune with the district and uniquely capable of fixing the country’s health care system.

The 8th District, which spans the Cascade mountains and includes the eastern portions of Pierce and King counties, as well as both Chelan and Kittitas counties, became a key piece of the Democrats’ strategy to flip the House after seven-term incumbent Dave Reichert announced his retirement at the beginning of the year.

Rossi has traditionally done well in the district. Though he lost all three of his statewide races, he carried the 8th in each by around 10 points. After years of crafting his image as a moderate Republican who helped balance Washington’s budget while in the legislature and who will reach across the aisle, he’s as well-known as any non-incumbent can be.

The task for the less well-known Schrier is to raise her own profile while puncturing that of her opponent — which she has tried to do by focusing on women’s rights, taxes and guns.

The race is widely viewed as extremely close, although a recent Crosscut/Elway poll found Rossi to be leading by 10 points in the midst of the tumultuous confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Whichever candidate wins is likely to do so by tacking to the center — Rossi touted his bipartisan credentials while avoiding talking about abortion and Schrier occupied territory that was more adjacent to that of Hilary Clinton than Bernie Sanders.

Audience members listen as candidates Kim Schrier and Dino Rossi answer questions during the 8th Congressional District debate at Central Washington University on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

The most radical issue either candidate raised Wednesday was Schrier’s cautious support of a universal basic income (UBI). A highly controversial economic idea that has had little exposure on the national political stage, a UBI was suggested by Schrier as a possible solution in the event of unemployment brought on by rampant automation.

The conversation, moderated by King 5’s Natalie Brand and KUOW’s Ross Reynolds, began on health care, believed to be a winning issue by Democrats broadly and Schrier specifically. The Issaquah pediatrician hasn’t hammered on “Medicare for All” as much as others in her party, but she did advocate for a public option Wednesday, as she has in the past. “I’m a pediatrician and have also been living with type 1 diabetes. … I got into this race because I want to make sure every family in this district has the care they need,” said Schrier.

Rossi flexed his free-market bona fides when rebutting Schrier on this point. “My opponent wants a government takeover of health care,” he said, adding that “the bottom line in the end is if we actually free this up, the system will work. It will work if we have competition in the system.”

On the issue of trade, Rossi warned of the dangers of intellectual property theft by China, but tip-toed around the hard-nosed tactics of his party’s leader.

Schrier similarly dodged a specific question about the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership, but said she supports trade policies that “protect workers, protect jobs and protect the environment.”

Like the ads that have been flooding televisions throughout the district, the debate often turned combative. When asked about the biggest issues facing the economy, Rossi first advocated for policies that “Let entrepreneurs be entrepreneurs,” before painting Schrier as wanting to raise taxes on multiple fronts. “All these things: they don’t create jobs,” he said. “What you want are these small businesses growing.”

On the same question, Schrier argued for the need to “invest in the economy from the middle out,” while also portraying Rossi as fighting for the wealthy. “He supports the tax plan that gives 83 percent of the benefit to the wealthiest corporations,” she said.

In an example of how Rossi believes he can win this race from the middle, the Issaquah Republican moved in the opposite direction from his party when talking about the environment. “I take a back seat to nobody when it comes to the environment,” he said, pointing to his time on the Nature Conservancy board and working on the Mountain to Sound Greenway. When asked about President Trump’s love of coal, Rossi quickly said “I’m not a supporter of coal,” before tying Schrier to groups that have advocated for tearing down dams to save fish.

Schrier shot back, saying she was the one getting endorsements from environmental groups. “I’m a person with a background in science and I’m frustrated this has become a political issue,” she said, referring to climate change.

On abortion, Schrier called it a “really important issue for women in this district.” Rossi on the other hand, tried to side step, saying, I never run on that issue.

At the end of the night, neither candidate landed any knockout punches, each settling instead for talking points that have become well-worn in their many commercials. But at the same time, neither candidate let slip any gaffes. In a race already saturated with attack ads, keeping gun powder from the PACs waiting in the wings is a victory in its own right.   

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Schrier, Rossi vie for split-ticket voters in sole 8th District debate