SEATTLE — Eight unknown Democrats are fighting for a spot to challenge a high-profile Republican in Washington state's reliably red 8th District.
It's a familiar battle in the 8th, where voters have chosen the Republican for almost four decades since the U.S. House district's creation in 1980. But with the national GOP bracing for big midterm losses, the Democrats hope to finally prevail.
The retiring incumbent, Rep. Dave Reichert, even said in an interview last year with The Seattle Times that he expects the seat will be "hard" to keep in Republican hands. The non-partisan Cook Political Report lists the contest as a toss-up. In a telling sign, a GOP House leadership-backed super PAC has opened an office in the area to help the Republican candidate.
The district includes the eastern suburbs of Seattle and stretches into the rural Cascade Mountains. It is among about two dozen across the country that are held by Republicans but whose voters chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, making it a critical potential pickup for the Democrats trying to gain control of the House for the first time since 2010.
But to do that, they'll have to defeat Dino Rossi, a former state senator who ran two close but unsuccessful efforts for governor and another for U.S. Senate. In each of those contests, he had a double-digit advantage in the 8th District.
"We're not giving much thought to the opinions of political horse race handicappers," said Andrew Bell, Rossi's campaign manager. "There's not much change from previous strategies. Dino has always been a fiscal conservative with a social conscience."
By the end of 2017, Rossi had raised about as much money as his top five Democratic opponents combined, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Still, Democrats have other factors playing in their favor, including Trump's low approval ratings and momentum from Conor Lamb's victory in the March special election for a Pennsylvania district that was held by Republicans for 15 years. Voters there had favored Trump by almost 20 percentage points in 2016. In Washington's 8th District, Trump lost by 3 percentage points.
"This is, without a doubt, the best chance Democrats have had to win this district, but they can't just rely on their voters, even if they are angry and motivated. They have to draw Republicans and independents," said Todd Schaefer, a political science professor at Central Washington University.
Rossi's name recognition and centrist appeal put him in a much better position than Republicans running in other competitive districts, Schaefer said.
District 8 includes Seattle's eastern suburbs of Sammamish and Issaquah, which have seen their populations grow on the back of Microsoft, Google and other expanding technology companies. The district runs south to parts of Pierce County and east to include Chelan and Kittitas counties across the Cascades, rural economies that are heavily dependent on agricultural exports. The district stands to be among the most impacted in the Northwest if resident workers that benefit from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals were removed, according to a 2017 study conducted by the University of Southern California and the Center for American Progress. The research shows economic output for the district would slump by more than $120 million annually.
Trump ordered a repeal of DACA in September, putting at least 800,000 beneficiaries at risk of deportation.
Rossi has stated his opposition to the Trump administration's imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. On DACA, he told The Seattle Times in March that it wouldn't be "logical" to deport beneficiaries.
Kim Schrier, a pediatrician who's leading the Democratic field in fundraising, supports the 2017 Dream Act, a measure introduced in Congress to protect minors who entered the U.S. with their parents from deportation and provide a path to citizenship. The legislation shouldn't be tied to partisan issues, she said.
Washington State Democratic Chairman Tina Podlodowski said Lamb's surprise win puts her party in a position to flip the 8th District "and a lot of other districts around the country."
It's a sign of growing public discontent, not only with President Trump, but also Republican policies such as tax reforms and attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, she said. Democrats are mounting serious challenges in two other Republican-held districts in the state, including that of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the only woman in House GOP leadership. McMorris Rodgers has enjoyed easy victories in her eastern Washington district since 2004.
Washington is a so-called top-two primary state, meaning the top two vote getters in its August primaries will compete against each other in November - regardless of political affiliation. In fundraising terms, the Democratic field is led by Schrier, Jason Rittereiser, a labor-rights lawyer, and Shannon Hader, a doctor and former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official. Podlodowski said she expects the fundraising advantage to remain with Rossi.
Democrats need to pick up 23 districts to reach the 218-seat threshold required to control the House.
"We're dealing with a majority that's vulnerable," David Wasserman, a House analyst at Cook, said of Republicans. "Democrats have had a tough time breaking strongholds like Washington's 8th, but this is shaping up to be a really good year for them nationally."