Congressmen for Life

The Democratic easy-seat club prepares to welcome its newest member.

As dean of the state's congressional delegation, Norm Dicks, 65, is about to score campaign victory No. 16. It'll be his second straight win over Republican Doug Cloud, an attorney and former high-school student-body president who has yet to report a dollar in donations. They call it a race but it's more a biennial snooze for phenom Dicks, who has an $835,000 war chest and the ability to appear unsullied (he favors the word "heck") after 30 years in Congress. A burly ex-Husky linebacker who's apologetic now for supporting the Bush invasion of Iraq, Dicks is popular around Boeing plants and with other Seattle-area aviation and military contractors he regularly procures funding for, not to mention the billions in defense spending he's helped dole out to Puget Sound military bases. As the state's senior incumbent, he no longer has to attend coffee klatches or crowd the local airways with his earnest mug. His offices in D.C. and Tacoma couldn't say where he might be campaigning last week, just days before the election. The congressman, who represents the 6th District, which covers the Olympic Peninsula, did recently show up to flip the coin at the 101st annual Aberdeen-Hoquiam prep football game. He earlier obtained $150,000 in renovations for Hoquiam's stadium.

It's a prized privileged position enjoyed by four other Democratic congressional incumbents from the left side of the state. Like Dicks, they face less a re-election than a recoronation. Seattle's liberal icon Jim McDermott, who got 91 percent of the vote in the primary, is gliding toward his 10th term in the 7th District. In the 9th District, which stretches from South Seattle through Thurston County, Adam Smith is cake-walking to a sixth term against a local contractor. With treasuries approaching $700,000 each, Brian Baird in the 3rd District (Southwest Washington) and Jay Inslee in the 1st (north Seattle burbs, Snohomish, and Kitsap Peninsula) are both expected to notch their fifth in a row.

The newest, and perhaps most surprising, member to join the club is Rick Larsen, who's en route to his fourth win in the formerly Republican-controlled 2nd District (Everett to Bellingham and the San Juans). His opponent, retired Navy officer and Snohomish County businessman Doug Roulstone, was energetically backed by the GOP. Roulstone built a $614,000 treasury and got drop-in campaign visits from Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Yet in the primary, Roulstone, with a decent 40,000 votes, and a second Republican with 11,000, came up far short of Larsen's 70,000.

Larsen, 41, calls his district a Democrat/swing voter region, "but more swing than Democrat." The other night, Larsen campaigned in Bellingham, then nearby Ferndale. "At Ferndale, they always want to know about the Intalco aluminum smelter, of course," Larsen says of one of the area's big employers, which has been battling soaring power costs to stay open. In Bellingham, home of Western Washington University, "they tend to care more about international issues, Iraq, the president," he says. The locals are apparently pleased with his answers. The Bellingham Herald found opponent Roulstone "honest, sincere, and knowledgeable," but recently endorsed Larsen's re-election, noting, "It would be difficult to find a better representative of the 2nd Congressional District."

It hasn't always been so easy. After longtime Republican representative Jack Metcalf vacated the seat in 2000, Larsen narrowly beat state Rep. John Koster for the job. In 2002, he won by just over 50 percent against ex-Metcalf aide Norma Smith. But by 2004, he easily beat Island County Auditor Suzanne Sinclair. "We're feeling confident now," Larsen said last week. He's raised $1.4 million this year, or more than double his opponent's contributions.

What some call waffling—Larsen found "improvement" on his last trip to Iraq this year—others call moderation, an advantage in a shifting, growing district such as the 2nd. Congressional Quarterly, the D.C. political journal, considers him a "centrist New Democrat." He gets good marks on working the middle ground for aerospace, defense, and agriculture legislation dear to the district's economy. A Snohomish County native and former County Council member, he got the Everett Herald's endorsement for "working hard on issues that matter and finding success—even as a member of the minority party."

Of the state's 3,254,184 registered voters, about 2,600,000 live on the more liberal west side of the state. There are roughly 1 million registered voters in Democrat-happy King County alone, about 350,000 more than in all the 20 Eastern Washington counties.

Inslee took advantage of the demographics after being ousted from the 4th District (Central Washington) by Doc Hastings of Pasco in the 1994 Republican Revolution. Inslee subsequently moved to the left coast—Bainbridge Island—and narrowly beat Republican incumbent Rick White in 1998. By drawing environmentalists and techies to his campaigns, he has steadily pushed up his victory margins, last time winning almost 2-1 over Randy Eastwood (whose claim to fame was being Clint Eastwood's sixth cousin).

This time, Inslee's roadkill is Eastside business consultant Larry Ishmael, a onetime Issaquah School Board member who has $9,000 in the bank compared to Inslee's ripe $900,000. Ishmael, whose Web site includes a photo of himself as a ski instructor, is reduced to having fund-raising dinners at the homes of supporters, while Inslee, who voted against the Iraq war resolution, can call in former U.S. ambassador and Plamegate figure Joe Wilson for a campaign bash.

This power base of incumbency, money, and name recognition, abetted by historically strong Democratic constituencies, can be frustrating for local Republicans who dare try to break the liberal stranglehold. Says an ever-optimistic Diane Tebelius, chair of the state Republicans, "I think the only district that is always going to be very, very difficult is the 7th. And the voters there get what they deserve" (i.e., McDermott). She thinks some once-Republican districts could someday return to the fold. But, she says, "you have to recruit credible candidates. That's the challenge."

In this season of a national Republican meltdown, Democrat rancher Peter Goldmark is plowing a conservative backlash to unseat incumbent Cathy McMorris in the 5th District (Spokane, Eastern Washington). Closer to home, the historically Republican 8th District is at best a toss-up between GOP incumbent Dave Reichert and newcomer Democrat Darcy Burner. (Republican Hastings, however, is currently sweeping toward a seventh term and being talked up as a possible successor to House Speaker Hastert.)

Larsen admires the durability of his entrenched Demo comrades. Maybe someday he, too, can be called "Congressman- for-life" as P-I columnist Joel Connelly labels McDermott (although Dicks has a decade-longer tenure). "When I talk with Republican colleagues around the country," Larsen says, "they sometimes relish it when McDermott gets into trouble and says something, uh, memorable. I tell them that comment just raised his probable 77 percent margin of victory to 79 percent. He knows his district!"

When you aren't a powerful member of the money-doling House Appropriations Committee, as Dicks is, or don't have the high profile of a congressman with a speaking role in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, as McDermott does, you go doorbelling. "By the time Election Day rolls around," says Larsen, "we—my staff and I—will have doorbelled 55,000 homes. It's not just about the money to advertise; it's getting out to the voters one by one. I did the same thing in my earlier races, and I think it's what makes the difference. You show up on someone's doorstep, and they remember it." Staying clear of scandal, doing the job, that's what it comes down to. "I think if incumbents do their work, even if voters don't agree with them, that it increases the likelihood of being returned to Congress," he says. "It's not complicated in that sense."

Larsen seemed a little embarrassed when asked about his victory party, which is already scheduled. According to his campaign Web site, a Victory Night Celebration Event is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7, just before the polls close. "Aw, they should have called that an election night party," he said. Not that he seemed overconfident anyway. "By the way," he reminded a reporter taking notes, "that's Larsen with an s-e-n. A lot of people don't know that."

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