A midterm ‘Kavanaugh bump’? Why all sides are watching this Washington district

Following a debate in which neither candidate committed serious goofs, the outcome of Washington state’s 8th Congressional District race — one of the nation’s most competitive — could be decided by forces that neither politician can control.

For Dino Rossi, the Republican seeking the open seat now held by Rep. Dave Reichert, the big unknown is President Trump and whether he might say or do something that further complicates the election for Republicans. That could force Rossi into a more defensive posture, as he was Wednesday on trade policy, immigration and environmental issues.

For Kim Schrier, the Democratic pediatrician making her first run for office, one uncertainty is whether Republicans are truly energized by the Democratic attempts to derail the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, as a recent poll of 8th District voters suggested.

Both campaigns declared victory following the debate, but reactions were mixed on whether it will be any kind of game-changer.

“So close to an election, the big thing in these kinds of events is to make sure there are no gaffes,” said Reagan Dunn, a King County Councilmember and Republican who attended the debate. “I didn’t see a big gaffe on either side.”

Wednesday’s debate in Ellensburg was televised live and surely monitored by political consultants nationwide, given the stakes involved in the 8th District, which stretches from the Seattle-Tacoma suburbs to more rural areas on the other side of the Cascades. The district has never before elected a Democrat to Congress, but in the last three presidential elections, voters opted narrowly for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

After Wednesday’s debate, Schrier’s team seemed giddy by her delivery, in which the Sammamish doctor effectively challenged Rossi on health insurance, reproductive rights, gun control and other positions. Rossi seemed less prepared, often falling back on his standard stump slogans, a tendency the Schrier campaign was quick to highlight.

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“Now we know why Dino Rossi didn’t want to debate,” Schrier’s campaign manager, Michael Beckendorf, said after the debate.

Yet even with a campaign war chest that rose by $3.7 million in the last quarter, the Schrier campaign can be anything but confident of victory. A Crosscut/Elway poll of 400 registered voters in the district showed Rossi surging ahead of Schrier by 10 points, 49 percent to 39 percent, with the remainder undecided. The poll was conducted Oct. 4-9, with pollster Stuart Elway detecting a surge of support for Rossi in the hours and days after the U.S. Senate confirmed Kavanaugh on Oct. 6.

Alex Hays, a Tacoma Republican consultant unaffiliated with any of the House campaigns, said Democrats have underestimated how the Kavanaugh hearings energized independents and GOP voters, whose turn-out potential was previously in doubt. Democrats better hope that enthusiasm wanes before Nov. 4, said Hays, or seats such as the 8th District could remain in Republican hands.

“If the Kavanaugh ‘bump’ is real and sustained, then Rossi wins easily,” Hays said following the Wednesday night debate. “If the bump isn’t a factor, then it’s back to a toss-up, at worst.”

For their part, the Schrier campaign team touted a New York Times poll in late September that showed her ahead of Rossi by a mere 1 percentage point. When the Elway poll showed Rossi surging ahead, they mostly downplayed the results. “We aren’t changing our strategy based on one drastic outlier,” Schrier spokeswoman Katie Rodihan said in an email.

Like many Democrats in this year’s midterms, Schrier has focused her campaign on health insurance and the potential for a Republican-controlled House to roll back Obamacare and safeguards for people with pre-existing conditions. She also sought to differentiate herself from Rossi on reproductive rights, given Rossi’s past opposition to abortion.

“At a time when Roe v. Wade is threatened, when the Supreme Court is going hard right, we need advocates for women’s health care,” Schrier said on Wednesday. “I will always support a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions.

For his part, Rossi sought to present himself a Republican with a history of working across party lines, as a state lawmaker in Olympia. He also attempted to paint Schrier as a hard-left supporter of the “resistance” who seeks a complete government takeover of healthcare, a claim that Politifact labeled as “mostly false” in a recent fact check.

Dunn, the Republican council member from King County, said he was impressed that the debate, organized by the Seattle CityClub and held at Central Washington University, was so civil, wide-ranging and substantive. During the hour-long back and forth, the difference between the candidates on numerous issues became clear.

Asked about Trump’s tariffs, Schrier said she opposed them, while Rossi would only say that “no one wins trade wars.” Schrier said she supported the Paris Agreement on climate change, while Rossi said he opposed it. Schrier said she was concerned about “abusive farmers and farm owners” exploiting farmworkers with H-2A visas, prompting a rebuke from Rossi for calling farmers “abusive.”

Schrier slammed Rossi for getting an “A-rating from the NRA” and refusing to support age restrictions for gun purchases.

About the only thing they agreed upon was the need for more “school resource officers” to identify troubled youth, such as the one accused of killing 17 people earlier this year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

Hays, the GOP consultant, said he Schrier seems to be seeking to re-brand herself.

“In the primary she was an angry radical — tonight she decided to be a moderate,” he said. “Even her sharpest attacks were delivered with a smile and an even tone of voice.”

Hays said he’s confident that the 8th District will remain Republican after Nov. 6, in part because it tends to opt for GOP moderates such as Reichert as opposed to hardliners such as Trump. But at least one Democratic consultant says the district and Washington state are changing demographically, and Republicans aren’t adjusting accordingly.

“Rossi is going to have trouble packaging his bipartisanship,” said Ron Dotzauer, a Seattle political advisor who is not part of any House campaign. “He’s anti-choice, and he supported Trump as a delegate at the GOP convention. He’s no John McCain.”

Stuart Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleavenworth
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