Who will represent Southwest Washington in Congress for the next two years?
As voters mark their ballots for the Nov. 2 election over the next two weeks, that’s still an open question.
The race between Democratic businessman Denny Heck and Republican state Rep. Jaime Herrera for the open 3rd Congressional District seat gained drama and momentum last week as the candidates debated face-to-face for the first time, new TV attack ads filled the airwaves and at least one poll showed the contest too close to call.
Washington’s 3rd District race is still ranked a toss-up by national political pundits. A poll commissioned by the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill showed Heck closing the gap with Herrera, with 15 percent of voters in the district still undecided. Another poll, commissioned by KING-TV, released Thursday, showed Herrera maintaining an 11-point lead and only 6 percent undecided.
The contest to succeed Democratic Rep. Brian Baird is on the national radar this year for one reason: If 40 of the 435 House seats change from Republican to Democrat as a result of the election, the GOP will take control of the House of Representatives. That would change the political math in Washington, D.C., and likely block President Obama’s legislative agenda for the remainder of his term.
The 3rd District, which includes all or parts of seven counties in Southwest Washington, has been a swing district in recent years. Voters in the district went for Republican Dino Rossi in the 2004 and 2008 governor’s races, for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and for Barack Obama in 2008.
Democrats have represented the 3rd for all but six of the past 50 years. But Republicans see the 2010 midterm election as their chance to break that pattern.
“The 3rd has been trending Republican over the years,” said Clark County Republican Chairman Ryan Hart. “We’ve seen that with the support Dino Rossi has received, and our current Congress is much further to the left than the residents of the 3rd Congressional District. Not to mention that the current Congress is not very popular with the public.”
On top of that, Hart said, “We’ve got an outstanding candidate. Jaime has been a very effective legislator. She’ll listen to her constituents, and she’ll be an effective member of Congress.”
County Democratic Chair Dena Horton said the 3rd isn’t like other Washington congressional districts that trend Democratic.
“The 3rd has always been characterized as the most conservative-leaning district in Washington held by a Democrat,” she said. “It takes someone who is very independent. That’s why someone like (U.S. Rep.) Brian Baird represented this district well.”
Heck fits the Baird mold, Horton said. “He actually has the real-world experience with the economy, with jobs, with education. He’s going to bring all of those things to the district, and those are the things the district cares about the most. The more that he and Herrera debate, the more people will see that Denny is very open-minded and independent and that he has solid ideas. They won’t see that kind of substance from Herrera; they’ll see Republican talking points.”
Heck, 58, and Herrera, 31, are separated not only by ideology but by a generation — a fact the Herrera campaign pointed out in a new, not-so-subtle TV ad that links Heck with 1970s-era leisure suits and disco music.
Both candidates were born and educated in Clark County. Heck’s long résumé includes serving five terms as a state legislator representing Clark County, serving as chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner, and co-founding TVW, the public affairs television channel based in Olympia, his home for the past 25 years. Over the past decade, Heck has founded and invested in several successful businesses.
Herrera, 31, worked in Washington, D.C., for two years after graduating from the University of Washington, including a stint in the office of U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane. She returned home to Clark County in late 2007 to seek appointment to a vacant legislative seat and won election to the seat in 2008.
The two emerged as the top vote-getters in a field of six after the Aug. 17 primary and went directly into a rough-and-tumble general election campaign. Herrera jumped to a substantial lead after beating two other Republicans in the primary and never lost it. Three polls commissioned by KING-TV show her with a comfortable lead. However, the pollster the station uses, SurveyUSA, which polls using automated telephone calls, consistently overestimates support for Republican candidates, according to an analysis of polling in the New York Times.
The Hill used a Democratic pollster in its new poll that shows Herrera leading Heck by just two points, well within the margin of error.
With two weeks to go, the safest conclusion is that the outcome of the race remains unpredictable.
Awash in money
The major political parties have invested heavily in the 3rd District race. According to the Federal Election Commission, the National Republican Campaign Committee has spent about $625,000 on TV ads and other media targeting Heck to date, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent a comparable amount — about $640,000 — targeting Herrera.
The DCCC is on track to spend at least $1 million on the race by Election Day, according to spokesman Andy Stone. Joanna Burgos of the NRCC said the Republican campaign committee will spend more than $900,000 on the race.
In addition, independent GOP-affiliated groups not associated with the Herrera campaign have poured buckets of cash into the race on her behalf. The American Future Fund has spent $872,000 for attacks on Heck that began the day after the primary. Another group, Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by the billionaire Koch Brothers and is not required to reveal its corporate donors, has spent $282,000 attacking Heck.
The latest reports to the FEC by the candidates’ own campaigns, due Friday, show Herrera has nearly $514,000 in the bank. Heck has $411,000 on hand.
Herrera raised $613,910 from July 29-Sept. 30, compared to the $550,000 raised by Heck during that same period, according to numbers provided by both candidates’ campaigns Friday.
Quarterly reports for the three months ending June 30 showed that as of that date Heck had raised about $1 million, including $350,000 he donated to his own campaign. Herrera had raised $411,000.
It’s not clear how effective the blizzard of TV ads funded by all that cash has been. In fact, the media blitz may be turning voters off.
GOP-backed ads typically link Heck, who has never served in Congress, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom he has never met, and refer to Heck’s “Democrat friends” in Congress. They play up the fact that Heck has said he would have voted for both the health reform bill and the stimulus, without mentioning that he has stated clear reservations about both bills.
The new 1970s “leisure suit” ad from the Herrera campaign that began running Friday details Heck’s support for state spending increases while he served in the Legislature in the 1970s and 1980s.
Heck, meanwhile, has accused Herrera of supporting privatization of Social Security, a political third-rail position. Herrera indicated at an event early in the campaign that she favored privatization, but she has since corrected that statement. Her campaign website states, “I have never supported privatizing Social Security.”
One recent anti-Herrera ad paid for by the DCCC illustrates how political ads can backfire. The ad accused Herrera of using the state treasury as her “personal piggybank” for spending a few hundred dollars of state money on business cards and protective covers for her office furniture. That gave the Herrera campaign an opening to raise Heck’s spending record in the Legislature three decades ago.
Heck and Herrera debated three times last week, in Lacey and Longview before live audiences Wednesday and in a taped debate at the Portland studio of KGW-TV on Friday. The KGW-TV debate, which aired Saturday on the station’s “Straight Talk” public affairs program, gave Clark County voters their first and likely their only chance to appraise the candidates side-by-side. The contrasts between them came across clearly in the debates.
Heck described in detail his plan for growing middle-class jobs in Southwest Washington through a combination of federal tax breaks, legislation to get credit flowing to small businesses, and investments in manufacturing and green energy.
Herrera called for repealing health reform and declared that the stimulus had done next to nothing to create new jobs. The answer to the region’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, she says, lies in sharply reducing federal spending and burdensome federal regulations on businesses. At the same time, she favors a permanent extension of the Bush administration tax cuts, which would cost an estimated $700 billion over 10 years.
Each candidate has spent a fair amount of time campaigning in Clark County since the primary.
Heck, who lives in Olympia, has held 18 official campaign events in the county since mid-August, according to his campaign. He’s visited several times during his just-completed five-week “Let’s Get to Work” tour, stopping at a wind energy startup company, meeting with credit union officials, touring vocational programs at Clark College and checking in with businesses at the Port of Camas-Washougal to get ideas about how to get the economy moving again.
Vice President Joe Biden campaigned for Heck Oct. 8 at a fundraiser in Seattle.
Herrera, who lives in Camas, has taken part in about two dozen campaign events in Clark County since the primary, according to her campaign spokesman, though she’s been less visible than Heck. She has made at least two fundraising trips to Washington, D.C., since she entered the race. In late September, U.S. Rep Pete Sessions, R-Texas, hosted a fundraiser for her in Camas.
In a year when Democrats are out of favor, both candidates have calibrated their campaigns to match the national mood.
Heck, who has strong connections with establishment Democrats in Seattle and Olympia, has cultivated an outsider’s perspective on Beltway politics that allows him to be critical of the current Congress and neutral on the Obama administration’s record.
Herrera has name familiarity, a fresh face, and the Republican Party’s momentum in an election year that will be one for the history books.
Kathie Durbin can be reached at 360-735-4523 or at firstname.lastname@example.org