Cliffhanger Ahead in 8th Congressional District

Polls show Kim Schrier and Dino Rossi in close race for open Congress seat

Dino Rossi’s Saturday pep talk to his door-to-door campaigners in southern Renton featured a couple of numbers — 129 and 23.

Rossi lost Washington’s 2004 gubernatorial election to Chris Gregoire by 129 votes on the third ballot count. “One hundred twenty-nine votes. You’ll be contacting enough people today to make a difference,” he told roughly 20 volunteers and an accompanying dog at the Ridgeway Elementary School parking lot before they hit the pavement.

He also noted that in 2016, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won in 23 congressional districts nationwide that currently have Republican representatives. “This is one of them,” he said.

And that is why Washington’s 8th Congressional District — stretching from Seattle’s easternmost suburbs to the Columbia River — is one of the most watched in the nation. With the retirement of Republican Dave Reichert, this congressional seat has no incumbent. The stakes are whether Democrats can wrestle control of the U.S. House from the GOP.

On Sept. 26, the New York Times/Siena College Poll gave Democrat Kim Schrier a win with 46 percent of the 505 people contacted, gave 45 percent to Rossi, and tallied 9 percent undecided with a margin of error of 4.6 percent. The political number-crunching website predicts Schrier will get 51 percent and Rossi will get 49 percent — with the conclusion that Schrier has a five-in-eight chance of winning.

This race could be a cliffhanger.

“I’m not going to say [Schrier] will lose the 8th. But it’ll be tough to win the 8th,” said Rob Fraser of Ellensburg and vice-chairman of the Kittitas County Democratic Party.

The Federal Election Commission reports $3 million has been raised for Rossi and $1.6 million for Schrier. This does not include independent committees paying for the nastier political ads on both sides — advertisements that Schrier and Rossi say they have no control over because they are not legally allowed to communicate with those independent political funds.

Schrier, 50, a pediatrician for Virginia Mason Medical Center, is taking on Rossi, 58, an investor in real estate projects. In July, Rossi resigned from Coastal Equity Partners, but still invests in real estate projects on his own. Both candidates live in Sammamish.

Schrier is a political rookie who tried to talk Reichert into opposing President Donald Trump’s plans to cut back on the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. But Reichert backed Trump’s bill to get it out of committee. As a result, Schrier decided to run against Reichert prior to his retirement announcement.

Rossi served two terms as a state senator from Washington’s 45th District in Seattle’s northeastern suburbs. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2004 and 2008, as well as losing the 2010 U.S. Senate race. Although he lost all three statewide races, he won the 8th District all three times by at least 10 percent in those contests.

Schrier has tried to paint Rossi as having “a hyper-partisan record too far right for this district.” Meanwhile, Rossi said: “She has marched in more protests in Seattle than in parades in this district.” Both candidates have described themselves as moderates.

The Washington Redistricting Commission — two Democrats, two Republicans and one non-voting neutral — deliberately designed the 8th District as a swing district, which has always been slightly red. It has never elected a Democrat to Congress. But Republicans rarely have won it by more than a few percentage points.

On the district’s west side are heavily Democratic Issaquah and Sammamish in a field of GOP-leaning rural areas in King and Pierce counties, said Ben Anderstone, a Democratic political consultant specializing in election demographics. Heavily blue Ellensburg, Leavenworth, and Roslyn are Democratic outposts in otherwise Republican Chelan and Kittitas counties. Another wrinkle: while the 8th has kept electing Republicans to Congress, it has gone twice for Barack Obama and once for Hillary Clinton.

Anderstone noted Rossi’s three statewide races give him name-recognition advantage over Schrier. Without that name recognition, Anderstone speculated that Rossi might be lagging farther behind Schrier.

The elephant in the room is President Donald Trump and whether his controversial presidency is a factor in the 8th District race.

“President Trump is not on the ballot. So it is not a factor for me,” said Rossi campaign volunteer Phil Mattern of Des Moines.

“I hear from a lot of women who are upset (with Trump), and they’re Republican women,” Fraser said.

“No member of the (Republican) party is standing up to this administration. (Rossi) will be a rubber-stamp for this administration,” Schrier said.

Rossi declined to say whether he thinks Trump is a good or bad president. In fact, he grew impatient when pressed on that question. “I sure know Hillary wouldn’t have been good for the country,” he said.

Rossi supported Trump’s massive tax cut package, which added $1.5 trillion to the national debt. Rossi argued these tax cuts translate to corporations being able to give bonuses and extra pay to employees. “Taxes are the biggest issues that I get on doorbelling,” Rossi said.

Rossi said he supported Trump for election because the president would be picking U. S. Supreme Court justices. Rossi said he is happy with Neil Gorsuch, who joined the court in 2017, but has not taken a public stance with Brett Kavanaugh, whose nomination is controversial due to sexual abuse allegations and a public record of slamming Democrats. Rossi backed the removal of the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, and said health insurance should be based more on the free market. He is pro-life. Rossi thinks no one wins trade wars.

Rossi calls himself a “fiscal conservative with a social conscience.” On the “social conscience” side, Rossi pointed to his work in building greenways on Interstate 90, plus his past service on the boards of the Washington Special Olympics and the Nature Conservancy.

Rossi’s political reputation as a cross-the-aisle budget guru dates back 15 years to a budget impasse in the Washington Legislature’s 2003 session. Then-Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, and the Senate majority Republicans joined forces in declaring no taxes should be levied when dealing with a $2.6 billon shortfall — a deadlock with the Democratic-controlled House that sent the 2003 session into overtime.

Locke and the Senate Republicans prevailed, although cuts in social services were not as great as originally expected. In its end-of-session analysis, the Associated Press praised Rossi, noting the GOP’s ability to consistently pick up a few moderate Democratic votes on the Senate’s budget bills.

A 2003 AP analysis said: “A star was born. Rossi, brand new to the budget chairmanship, took to the post like a natural. He charmed and disarmed his colleagues, and pieced together a fairly benign budget when the House Democrats got high-centered. He showed a flair for well-timed one-liners and folksy debating points. Before long, people were talking: Rossi for Congress? Rossi for governor? Stay tuned.”

Rossi left the Legislature that same year to run for governor. He served two short stints as an appointed senator to fill in a couple of vacancies that showed up in the middle of terms.

If elected, Rossi wants to become a budget wonk again, hoping to get onto the House’s ways and means or appropriations committees. He is not interested in serving on non-financial committees.

Democrats have been attacking Rossi on being a junior associate of Melvin Heide for much of the 1980s. In 1989, Heide was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay $1.7 million in restitution for frauds involving loans and real estate deals. In the 1980s, Rossi, at the beginning of his career, followed Heide through three real-estate firms in the 1980s, according to the Seattle Times. Rossi was never implicated in any of Heide’s crimes, although the Times story quoted a business associate wondering why he would follow Heide through three firms.

Rossi said he was a 23-year-old rookie in the real estate investment world when he first worked for Heide. Rossi said he was never involved with the portions of the businesses where Heide’s actions were suspicious or criminal. “I had nothing to do with it,” Rossi said.

Meanwhile, Schrier sees Trump as a major factor in the election — especially with Republicans controlling both chambers in Congress while reluctant to rein in Trump from his almost daily controversial actions.

”I believe President Trump to be dangerous. …. We have a broken government that is not imposing checks and balances on the president,” Schrier said.

Schrier’s passion is health care. She wants to return the individual mandate to the Affordable Care Act. Both Schrier and Rossi claim the other’s stances on Obamacare drive up a health insurance premiums. “The ACA was a big win in the district for people older than 50,” she said.

Schrier wants to safequard and expand on helping women with health care. “I think women should be in charge of their own health care decisions,” she said.

She argued that the $1.5 trillion tax cut went mostly to corporations and the wealthy with little trickling down to ordinary people. One-time bonuses from some corporations are not enough to justify the cuts, Schrier contended, preferring to boost long-term income increases for low- and middle-income people. She opposes Trump’s tariffs, noting that the escalating trade wars are hurting farmers, who may or may not get bailouts from the feds.

Schrier is also interested in climate change issues, boosting solar and wind energy, and reforming immigrant laws “so workers on the farms are not afraid of getting arrested on the way to work.”

Dino Rossi is the Republican candidate for the 8th Congressional District. Photo by John Stang

Dino Rossi is the Republican candidate for the 8th Congressional District. Photo by John Stang

Kim Schrier is the Democratic candidate for the 8th Congressional District. Photo by John Stang

Kim Schrier is the Democratic candidate for the 8th Congressional District. Photo by John Stang