WASHINGTON – Having been the sheriff in a Republican-leaning district — at a time when the party believes that focusing on homeland security will give it the edge in the midterm elections — certainly has its advantages.
So, it is no surprise that the campaign to re-elect Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican freshman representing the 8th District in suburban Seattle, says his 34-year career in the King County Sheriff's Office is his strongest selling point today.
“He is very strong on security, very knowledgeable and that can only help in this election,” said campaign manager Carol Beaudu.
“I think he is absolutely well-positioned to get re-elected,” said fellow Washington Republican and freshman member Rep. Cathy McMorris.
“His tremendous experience as a former sheriff of King County was really recognized” in the House, she added, where he was made chair of the emergency preparedness, science and technology subcommittee of the Homeland Security Committee.
But whether this focus on law enforcement experience will be enough to fend off a challenge from Democrats, who believe the district is trending more Democratic and that this is the perfect anti-incumbent year to do it, is a looming question in this key competitive midterm race.
“We feel very positive about our chances for taking the 8th District,” said Dwight Pelz, chairman of the Washington State Democratic Party.
Democrats plan to portray Reichert as a “rubber stamp” for President George W. Bush and the election a referendum on failed congressional and White House policies, including the war in Iraq.
“(The 8th District) is a educated, suburban district that’s turning away from the radical rhetoric of the Republican Party and looking for a more centrist direction,” said Pelz.
The party is pinning their hopes on former Microsoft executive and political newcomer Darcy Burner. “(It’s) a classic district for what is going on in America, with voters moving from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party – Darcy Burner is a great representative of that.”
Their challenge has not gone unnoticed on the national stage.
“This race is back in our upper echelon,” says Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political science professor and author of the campaign-tracking “Crystal Ball” online tipsheet.
He said Burner has shown strong fundraising skills – she’s raised $1.4 million to Reichert’s $2.1 million — in a district that doesn’t tip strongly for either party, which makes this seat key in the Democratic mission to take over the House in November.
But not everyone is so sure. The Rothenberg Political Report tipsheet has this race in the competitive “leans Republican” column, but analyst Nathan Gonzales doesn’t seem too convinced that Reichert is in trouble.
“I think it’s funny – to Democrats, every district is getting more Democratic,” he said, noting that without party registration in Washington State, there were only past elections to judge which way this district was trending.
In 2004, Democratic Sen. John Kerry beat President Bush 51 percent to 48 percent in the 8th District, but this was also the same election that Reichert beat his Democratic opponent Dave Ross 52 percent to 47 percent to capture the open seat vacated by Republican Rep. Jennifer Dunn.
“Republicans have in Dave Reichert a sort of larger-than-life figure, his identity isn’t just wrapped up in politics, but in his days as sheriff,” said Gonzales. “He’s proving to be a rough candidate to beat.
“At the same time, there is some excitement for Darcy Burner,” he added, however, “thus far she hasn’t made her case to why voters would get rid of Dave Reichert.”
But Democrats say a recent investigation into the King County Sheriff’s Office – of which Reichert was the elected Sheriff from 1997 to 2004 – has put Reichert’s key credentials for office on the line.
In a series of stories by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer over the last year that later prompted the formation of a blue-ribbon investigative panel, reporters found multiple examples of deputy misconduct and weak internal mechanisms for dealing with officer discipline, performance evaluations, citizen outreach and citizen complaints.
While the blue ribbon report said many of these problems were “longstanding,” it did not single out past sheriffs for rebuke. Reichert has since made a statement about the panel’s findings, saying as sheriff, he pursued reforms and made many unsuccessful requests for more funding to implement better oversight at the department.
Reichert declined an interview for this story.
Of course, Reichert’s office would rather focus attention on his role in capturing the infamous Green River Killer in 2001 and public critiques of the Seattle Police’s handling of the World Trade Organization protesters in 1999.
Burner, on the other hand, tells FOXNews.com that the country will continue hurdling down the wrong track unless voters change course with their elected officials this fall.
“I believe the country is headed in the wrong direction; the congress has been rubber-stamping the Bush agenda and I wanted to change course,” she said of her decision to run for office.
She said promises to senior citizens and veterans have been broken “over and over again” and uncertainly looms over issues like accessible healthcare and giving American students competitive advantages.
She is frustrated with the war in Iraq – her brother served a tour there in the Army's 101st Airborne — the administration’s execution of which she said has been “unacceptably bad and grossly unfair to our troops and we need a congress that is going to demand some accountability.”
Mike Young, chairman of the King County Republicans, says this rhetoric isn’t getting her far.
“Darcy talks a lot about the war, but I’m not sure its resonating well with the district – with large urban centers, yeah, but not so much in that district,” said Young, who added that Reichert was “doing an amazing job” in Washington.
The 8th District serves the eastside of metro Seattle, including the city of Bellevue and Mercer Island and the wealthy suburbs south of Seattle and on Lake Washington.
Susan Sheary, chairwoman of the King County Democrats, agrees with state Democrats who believe that the district is trending Democratic, and she is confident that Burner is making her mark.
“Darcy is the right candidate at the right time,” she said. “(Reichert) is not in tune with the voters of this district.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee is not ignoring this race either. So far, President Bush and White House political strategist Karl Rove have come into the district to fundraise for Reichert.
“On one hand you have Sheriff Reichert who is esteemed among his colleagues to the point he would get a subcommittee chairmanship as a freshman member,” said NRCC spokesman Jonathan Collegio. “On the other hand, you have a liberal activist in Darcy Burner, who has never before held elected office. There is a very clear choice here.”