Who's afraid of Sheriff Dave Reichert?
Evidently not many Republicans in the 8th Congressional District.
Last February, Reichert, 53, whose personal and professional story is the stuff of Hollywood, declared that he would seek the GOP nomination for the open congressional seat being vacated by six-term U.S. Representative Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue. The Eighth District runs along the northeastern side of King County (Bellevue, Sammamish, Issaquah) down through the blue-collar Kent Valley (Kent, Renton, Auburn) into the rural areas of King (Enumclaw) and Pierce counties. The combination of his personal charisma, his heroic actions as a cop, his dogged pursuit of the Green River Killer, his terrific name identification and his telegenic good looks made him the immediate favorite. But it did not, surprisingly, keep other first-tier candidates out of the race. By the end of March, 55-year-old former federal prosecutor Diane Tebelius; state Sen. Luke Esser, R-Bellevue, 42; and Bellevue City Council member Conrad Lee, 65, had all jumped in the race, while another Bellevue City Council member, Grant Degginger, who worked in D.C. as an aide to former U.S. Rep. Joel Pritchard, and Howard Schmidt, a former top computer security adviser to President George W. Bush, are also seriously considering becoming candidates. On the Democratic side, high-tech executive Alex Alben and interior designer Heidi Behrens-Benedict are having a contest of their own.
Numerous Republican sources agree that no matter who else gets into the race, Tebelius and Esser, a former freelance sports columnist for Seattle Weekly, are very much in the running. Lee is considered a long shot by bipartisan sources, including Alben's consultant, Christian Sinderman, and Claddagh Associates' Jim Keough, who has no clients in the race.
Why isn't Reichert scaring off more competitors? It certainly isn't strong ideological differences. All of the top three Republicans are staunch conservatives: They are pro-life; opposed to gay marriage; in favor of the war in Iraq; and supportive of President Bush's tax cuts. They like to stress their differences in terms of experience. Reichert says his national reputation as a law-enforcement officer will enable him to secure key committee assignments. Tebelius argues that her knowledge of Washington, D.C., as a former aid to Sen. Pete Domenici, R–N.M., will give her an edge in the nation's capital. Esser points out that he is the only of the three with legislative experience, and in just six years in office he has risen to the key leadership position of majority floor leader in the state Senate. He also points out that he's the tallest. While experience makes for a good talking point, it clearly doesn't answer the question of why Tebelius and Esser are running.
The explanation appears to be simple: They believe they can win.
This September, barring any changes from the courts, for the first time in 69 years, Washington voters will have to ask for a Republican, Democratic, or Libertarian ballot and will only be able to vote for one party's candidates in the primary election. Having to declare party preference, even for a day, will drive down turnout and put the primaries in the hands of the party faithful. "It's going to be the hard-core folks on the Republican side. You are not going to get the independents," says GOP consultant Keough. While Keough says Reichert is the front-runner, there are some important factors that give Esser and Tebelius hope. Says Keough, "A more conservative candidate will come out of the 8th Congressional race or someone who is more tied to the Republican base. Neither one of these would bode well for Reichert."
While Reichert seems plenty conservative to the average voter, the party regulars may be suspicious of him because he was first appointed by Democratic King County Executive Ron Sims. He may lose a few more because he favors closing the so-called gun-show loophole that would require people who purchase firearms from unlicensed dealers at such events to undergo a background check. Both Esser and Tebelius oppose a new law mandating such background checks at gun shows for different reasons.
In terms of party contacts, Tebelius, one of the state's three members of the Republican National Committee, has strong ties with party activists from years of work on campaigns and Republican party committees, while Esser has an organization that has helped him win a couple of tough Republican primaries for state Legislature in the last six years.
Will the need to run so hard to the right to win the primary be a disadvantage for the winner come the general election? The Democrats sure think so. They point out that Democrats from presidential candidate Al Gore to state legislators Ross Hunter, Judy Clibborn, and Dawn Morrell have won in east King County and northern Pierce County in recent elections. Democrats believe the abortion issue will loom large in the race as Dunn, while conservative on many issues, considered herself pro-choice.
Republicans acknowledge they can't take the district for granted. Esser says candidates must be "big-tent conservatives" who can get things done in a bipartisan body without compromising their principles.
Reichert frames his campaign for Congress as a natural extension of his 32 years in law enforcement. Now he's running for office because, "I can make a difference in a much broader way than just public safety." He moves easily into a discussion of the specifics of policy issues. On gun control and immigration—he believes the U.S. government should use ID cards for Mexican nationals living in the United States to strengthen homeland security while Esser believes the new Mexican ID is unreliable because of the weakness of its underlying documents—he clearly parses the differences between himself and his opponents.
Esser is also a veteran campaigner. He rattles off his positions on controversial issues clearly and articulately. He proudly points to his leading role on the package of tax incentives that won the assembly plant for Boeing's 7E7 for Everett. Yet at the same time, he recognizes the controversy around it and uses it to his advantage. "We had to do so much to keep Boeing here because we have such a poor business climate in this state," he claims. During this year's legislative session, he was very focused on renewing the state's research and development tax break for high-tech companies, believing it not only benefited many businesses in his district but the state's economy as a whole. He also stresses transportation as a vital element in improving the region's economy. In Congress, he would continue Dunn's dogged opposition to Sound Transit's light rail in favor of highway expansion. "The key is expanding I-405 and SR-167," he says. When not focused on issues, he allows his good sense of humor and likability to shine through. He jokes about having shaved his goatee and mustache for the 8th District contest. "The hipster look might not be the best for a Republican congressional candidate," he says, laughing. In addition, he claims four "bipartisan" sources who proclaim that he now looks like Ben Affleck (see "The Four Musketeers," Dec. 31, 2003).
Tebelius is not as comfortable yet being a candidate as her opponents, but seems certain to hit her stride by summer. She still squirms in response to the most obvious questions on controversial social issues like abortion and gay marriage. She prefers to tell her story of growing up on a North Dakota farm without running water and attending a one-room schoolhouse. She does best speaking from the heart about her passion for education as the great equalizer; both she and her mother were public-school teachers. "We have to ensure the most vulnerable among us" receive a decent education, she says. As a congressional aide, she proudly worked on President Ronald Reagan's first tax cuts and talks about the strength of her knowledge about the federal government's excessive regulatory burden on small business. She notes pointedly, "Fifty percent of small businesses are owned by women." She hopes to focus some of her work in Congress on developing economic policies that encourage small businesses to grow instead of smothering them with red tape. Both her heartfelt education position and her more intellectual critique of the tax code are well aimed to strengthen her position with her natural constituency: Republican women. As the only woman in the race, she clearly hopes to capitalize on the gender gap and become identified with the incumbent Dunn in the voters' minds.
She also has made a blistering start in her fund-raising. In her first month, she reports contributions of $160,000, whereas Reichert has only brought in $66,000 in nearly twice that time. Esser has raised $45,000 in his first three weeks of shaking the money tree. Tebelius' ability to raise money seems to point not only to her strong connections with party insiders who give, but also to the discomfort some in the party feel with Reichert's candidacy. That's why despite the sheriff's many advantages, it's not clear who will win this shoot-out.