Races to Watch: Will the Netroots Sink a Microsoft Dem?

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Matt Brashears / King County Journal / AP

Congressman Dave Reichert, right, and Democratic opponent Darcy Burner, left.

The battle to be Bill Gates' congressman should have been over by now. Although Dave Reichert, the incumbent GOP representative from Washington State's eighth congressional district, is still a largely popular figure, this is a Democratic year. The percentage of Americans who think the country is on the "right track" just hit a record low. Every morning brings another day when Americans peek through their fingers at plummeting stock market numbers. Further dragging down the Republican brand are the dual anchors of an unpopular President and an unpopular war.

In most of Washington State, this has translated into support for Barack Obama, who currently leads John McCain there by an average of 8 points. But while Democratic challenger Darcy Burner fought Reichert in a close race in 2006, losing by just 2.9%, she is not one of the half dozen Democrats around the country who are coasting to victory in their congressional re-matches. A mid-September Survey USA poll showed Reichert up by 10 points (54% to 44%). And the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which backed Burner in 2006, just surprised the local political world by endorsing Reichert, saying he had "grown" as a congressman.

Even as Burner's campaign has become more of a long shot, she is increasingly a cause celebre in the liberal blogosphere. The website Daily Kos calls her "a netroots hero" and sees her struggle as a crusade for liberal bloggers as well. "Taking Darcy down, in their minds," wrote one of Kos' main posters, McJoan, about national Republicans, "means taking us down, Neutering us." But her tight ties to the liberal blogosphere may well be her ultimate downfall.

The 8th congressional district was created in 1980, and for most of the three decades since, it was the one solidly Republican area west of the Cascades in Washington. The voters who lived in eastern King County (east of Seattle) and the more rural areas out in Pierce County made Republican Jennifer Dunn their congresswoman until she retired in 2004. But Reichert was elected to replace her with just a slim margin of victory that year, in part because he was more socially conservative than the pro-choice Dunn.

More significantly, though, the district had changed since 1980. Young couples moving out from Seattle to buy suburban homes have added to the rolls of Democratic voters. And as the high-tech industries expanded to the east of Seattle, cities like Kirkland and Bellevue were suddenly filled with very affluent but also very socially conscious residents, Gates just being the most famous. Democrats began winning state house seats and mayoralties. Both Al Gore and John Kerry captured the district in their presidential runs, and the voters of the 8th have enthusiastically supported both Democratic Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

Which is why the Republicans have been so pleasantly surprised by Reichert's slim wins. The 57-year-old former sheriff of King County describes himself as "a cop who came to Congress" and that's also an accurate explanation for his success. He first gained notoriety after a local television station taped him personally chasing looters down the street during WTO protests in 1999. But Reichert became a household name after leading the task force that caught the notorious Green River Killer in 2001. That year Reichert ran unopposed for a second term as sheriff.

Reichert has also benefitted from a relatively moderate political record on certain issues, most notably the environment. He was recently named one of the three "Greenest Republicans" in Congress, and last year the League of Conservation Voters gave him a score of 85 out of 100. But while Reichert often votes against his party, he has been with George W. Bush on big votes, such as authorizing the war in Iraq and supporting Bush's tax cuts, and he has gotten strong support from the National Right for Life Committee. What may hurt Reichert more than any positions he's taken, however, is the fact that he hasn't done much to distinguish himself in Congress. "If you asked most people in the district who Dave Reichert is," says one local Democrat, "I bet they'd tell you he's still sheriff."

That hasn't been a problem for Darcy Burner, who has worked hard to distinguish herself since the loss in 2006. Burner, who is 37 and worked as a project manager for Microsoft for 12 years, has stayed in campaign mode since then. Keeping her finger on the pulse of the Democratic base, she made opposition to the Iraq War her signature issue, developing "A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq" and lobbying other Democratic candidates to sign on. And she earned hosannas from bloggers for strongly criticizing Democratic leaders who supported the controversial FISA bill governing domestic eavesdropping in Congress.

Now, however, the antiwar position Burner staked out at the beginning of her campaign has become less important to voters in the midst of the country's financial crisis. While some of the 8th district's residents work in high-tech sectors, there are large areas of Pierce County where living standards are more modest and whose communities are less insulated from economic downturns. And yet Burner has focused surprisingly little on the pocketbook issues that are drawing voters to Democratic candidates around the country.

In the all-important race for campaign cash, Burner benefits from her blogosphere profile. She has raised $2.3 million, much of it from outside her district. She is popular with liberal activists not just because of the positions she's taken but because she engages with them as well. It's not unusual for Burner to post on Democratic blogs, and less than a month before her primary in September, she flew down to Austin to attend Netroots Nation, the annual gathering of liberal bloggers convened by Daily Kos.

Reichert is holding his own financially, with significant assists from business groups. The National Federal of Independent Business poured nearly $220,000 into television ad buys against Burner, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently went on the air with $156,000 of commercial time to boost Reichert. Republicans are hoping that Burner's connection to liberal activists will turn off moderate voters who want a candidate who can relate to them and address their kitchen-table concerns.

"Darcy Burner is pretty open about the fact that she wants to go to Congress to represent the netroots," Reichert's campaign manager Mike Shields, told the Seattle Times. "That is her constituency, and that is who she raised money from, and so that's who she'll do the bidding of." But Democrats worry about the association as well. "The big question people are quietly asking about her," says one local Democratic consultant, "is, in building her movement, did she lose touch with the people she sought to serve?"

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