Wash. 1 Primary Is a Battle for Silver Medal

Jessica Taylor July 19, 2012 · 5:36 PM EDT

When a bipartisan commission redrew Washington state’s congressional lines late last year, commissioner and former Sen. Slade Gorton (R) boasted that the new 1st District may be the most evenly divided in the country.

While Democrats appear to have a slight edge in the race to succeed former Rep. Jay Inslee (D), who has already stepped down to campaign for governor, the outcome of the Democratic primary could determine how competitive this swing district will end up being in November. National Republicans were initially skeptical of their prospects – since John McCain only won about 42 percent here in 2008, and Republican Dino Rossi narrowly topped 50 percent in both his failed 2010 Senate race and 2008 gubernatorial bid.

But now, the race for the coveted second slot in the August 7 all-party primary has become a free-for-all among four candidates, featuring controversial super PAC attacks, last minute mailers and heavy spending ahead of what’s expected to be a low turnout election. Former Microsoft executives Darcy Burner and Suzan DelBene, former state Rep. Laura Ruderman and state Sen. Steve Hobbs, all Democrats, are battling for one slot on the November ballot. And the possibility that one of the more liberal candidates, such as Burner, advances, has the GOP more optimistic and Democrats more worried.

The only thing that seems a certainty in the top-two race is that Republican John Koster will finish firmly atop the multicandidate field. As the only major Republican in the race, the Snohomish County Councilman who lost by just two points to Rep. Rick Larsen (D) in 2010 is expected to finish first, well ahead of the rest of the field.

The race for second is far more muddled, and recent polling has confirmed there’s no clear frontrunner. An independent poll conducted by Strategies 360 on July 15-17 showed Koster leading the field with 36 percent, and Democrats in either the low teens or single digits – Burner at 12 percent, DelBene at 11 percent, Hobbs at 7 percent and Ruderman at 3 percent. Hobbs’ own DMA Strategies poll, released earlier this week, showed Burner at 13 percent, Hobbs at 12 percent, DelBene at 11 percent and Ruderman at just 5 percent.

Burner and DelBene started out as the best known in the district, given their recent races against Rep. Dave Reichert (R). Burner lost by three points in 2006 and by six points in 2008, while DelBene lost by four points in 2010. Burner led early polling this time around, and has the strong support of progressive activists, including an endorsement from by MoveOn.org.

But state Democrats long expected DelBene to be able to catch up, given her ability to self-finance. As of the end of June, she has already put in over $1 million of her own money, and local sources say she’s been blanketing the district with direct mail pieces and they note she was up early on television and will be heavily until Election Day.Now, she seems to have at least pulled even, and if her spending continues in the race’s waning days, observers believe that could give her a narrow edge. 

The latest bizarre turn in the race has been a super PAC run by Ruderman’s mother that’s parachuted in to support Ruderman and hammer DelBene, and later Burner. Progress for Washington has sent out direct mail and TV ads calling DelBene “Suzan DelRomney,” comparing the wealthy businesswoman to the GOP presidential nominee. Ruderman has now been forced to decry the outside group – an awkward position, especially given her mother’s cancer diagnosis has been central in her own television campaign. While the specific attack reinforces that DelBene is seen as more moderate than both Ruderman and Burner, some Democrats think this latest debacle could end up helping Burner by default. Still, Ruderman has conserved her own cash wisely, with the most on hand ($276,000 at the end of June). She is still a factor, in spite of her slide in polls.

According to some Democrats, Hobbs could be the most appealing of the candidates in a general election and his centrist reputation could match up well ideologically with the swing nature of the seat. Hobbs had $106,000 still in the bank at the end of June.
For now, the race may well come down to a shootout between DelBene and Burner, but the neither Hobbs nor Ruderman should be counted out. Ballots go out this week in the all-mail election, so the time for candidates to finish their closing arguments is now.