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Candidates for the 1st Congressional District at the KCTS–League of Women Voters Debate. (KUOW Photo: Deborah Wang)

Candidates for the 1st Congressional District at the KCTS–League of Women Voters Debate. (KUOW Photo: Deborah Wang)


Crowded Field Vies For Primary Win In 1st Congressional District Race

Deborah Wang

One of the most hard–fought races on the primary ballot this year is the race for the 1st Congressional District in Washington state. The open seat was once held by Democrat Jay Inslee. He's stepped down to run for governor.

The boundaries of the 1st are new because of redistricting. The 1st now runs from Redmond and Medina, all the way north to the Canadian border. It's meant to be a classic swing district. Seven candidates are vying for the seat. KUOW's Deborah Wang has this story on the competition.


There is one person on the ballot who is almost sure to advance to the general election.

John Koster: "I'm John Koster, I'm running for US House this year, 1st District."

John Koster is the sole Republican in the race. We caught up with him at a weekend parade in Redmond. And being the only Republican in a district that is roughly half Republican gives Koster a big advantage going into the primary.

Koster: "Our polling numbers look, look, ah, really good. So we're feeling pretty good about where we're at today, but it's early."

Koster is a former dairy farmer and a sitting Snohomish County councilmember. He ran for Congress twice before, against Democrat Rick Larsen in the old 2nd District.

Koster is conservative on social issues, like abortion and marriage, and he embraces some of the tea party's positions on limited government. For example, in previous campaigns he called for eliminating the US Department of Education.

In this race, Koster says he knows that Democrats will try to make an issue of that.

Koster: "I think the other side will want to portray me as this ultra–conservative, but the fact of the matter is, regardless of my principles and they are what they are, I can work with people. My door — I have always had an open door policy in the Legislature and on the County Council. And you can ask folks who don't necessarily agree with me, but I have always had an open door."

So for the other six candidates, five Democrats and one Independent, this summer's primary is all about who will face John Koster in the fall.

At the moment, Darcy Burner is at the front of the pack of Democrats. She has a slim lead in the most recent polls. She's run for Congress twice before as well, against Republican Dave Reichert in the 8th District.

Burner has the highest name recognition, and the sharpest rhetoric.

Burner: "Well, I certainly have never shied from describing myself as a progressive. And I do think that one of the problems we have in D.C. is that there are a lot of people, both Republicans and Democrats, who spend far too much of their time worried about big business and worried about the very wealthy, and not enough of their time thinking about the people they are supposed to represent."

And compared with her previous Congressional campaigns, on some issues Burner has moved even farther to the left. During the debt–ceiling debate, she says she was furious at President Obama for putting Medicare and Social Security cuts on the table. She famously tweeted, "Obama is a Republican." She has made abortion rights and ending the war in Afghanistan centerpieces of her campaign. In a recent email about gun control, she told the National Rifle Association to "go to hell."

Burner: "I will embrace the term 'rabble rouser.' That is entirely fine by me."

Close on Burner's heels is another Democrat with a very different style. Like Darcy Burner, Suzan DelBene ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the 8th District. She is a former top executive at Microsoft.

DelBene: "I'm a businesswoman, an entrepreneur. I've been a small businessperson, a large businessperson, I ran the Department of Revenue, I've worked in micro–finance, helping people get on their feet. So I have a very broad set of experiences that is incredibly relevant to our most important issue, which is the economy."

And right now, DelBene's campaign is the most visible, at least on TV.

TV ad: "My Dad lost his job when I was nine. Our family, devastated."

Her campaign has blanketed the airwaves with ads that tell of her family's early financial struggles.

TV ad: "I'm running for Congress to rebuild the middle class."

DelBene says the ads have helped her stand out in the crowded primary field. She's paid for them largely with her own money. So far, she's put more than $1 million into her campaign. Her wealth has become an issue in the race. Darcy Burner routinely takes shots at multi–millionaires in Congress who don't understand the struggles of the middle class.

The Democrats who come next in the polls both have legislative experience.

Steve Hobbs is a state senator who represents Lake Stevens in Snohomish County. Hobbs is an Iraq War veteran, and this is how he describes his politics —

Hobbs: "I am an unabashed Centrist, and I am going to take that to Washington, D.C."

In the state Senate, Hobbs co–founded a group of moderate Democrats who sometimes vote with Republicans on fiscal issues. It's known as the Roadkill Caucus.

Hobbs: "People want to see somebody who is willing to stand up for them, and go against their party, if they have to, if it's the right thing to do. And I have proven that time and time again. I've done it in Olympia, I can do it in the other Washington. And that's how I've set myself apart."

Hobbs lags behind his two main Democratic rivals in fundraising, but he says he is making up for the difference with a sturdy ground campaign. He says volunteers have knocked on tens of thousands of doors in the district.

Sound: Knocking.

The other Democrat who has embraced the door–knocking strategy is former state Representative Laura Ruderman.

Ruderman: "My name is Laura Ruderman, and I am running for the United States Congress to represent this area."

We caught up with Ruderman in Kirkland. She says she has personally knocked on more than 5,200 doors in this campaign. It's a strategy that's worked for her in the past, helping her win and hold her legislative seat.

Ruderman: "I am the candidate whose got the best track record of winning elections in tough districts, including having unseated a five–year Republican incumbent at the very start of my political career."

Ruderman has recently been in the news because of a series of attack ads targeting her opponents, Suzan DelBene and Darcy Burner. One flyer called Burner a "loose cannon" and DelBene a "Democratic version of Mitt Romney." The ads were produced by a political action committee. At first, Ruderman said she didn't know anything about them. But it was later revealed the person funding the ads was Ruderman's mother. Ruderman has since called for the ads to stop.

The final Democrat in the polls is Darshan Rauniyar. He's a businessman who is staging his first campaign.

Rauniyar: "I am the only non–politician in this race. I am a candidate who has refused to take PAC money because I believe PAC is corrupting the political system. So people should remember my name as a regular guy, normal guy, he's like us, he's not a career politician."

Rauniyar immigrated from Nepal, and became a high–tech entrepreneur. He says his focus is to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States.

Larry Ishmael rounds out the field of candidates. He's run for Congress twice before in the 1st District, as a Republican. This time he is running as an Independent.

Ishmael: "I am the Independent candidate that will not be usurped by either party, and that will actually represent the voters of the district and not a political party or special interest groups."

Ishmael is an economist who advocates a 17 percent flat–tax rate. He has not reported raising any money, but he tells KUOW he plans to put $250,000 of his own money into his campaign.

For the state's political parties, the stakes in this race are extremely high.

Republicans believe it's the best chance they have of adding a Republican to the state's congressional delegation.

State Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur says that will be easy to do if one particular Democrat makes it through the primary. He's hoping for Darcy Burner.

Wilbur: "I am lighting candles, sacrificing sheep, whatever it takes. I'm begging, talking to God every day that it be Darcy Burner because she is the Dennis Kucinich of Washington state. If Darcy is the nominee, we will get 60 percent of the vote, easy."

Burner laughs at the notion.

Burner: "Kirby is welcome to send money and help as he would like to."

And she says that in polls she does better pitted against Koster than any other Democrat.

In many ways, though, the race is still wide open. Ballots are just arriving in the mail. Many voters are undecided, and some are confused about all the candidates and the new district boundaries. To make matters even more complicated, there are two elections going on in the 1st District. Another vote will decide who will serve the last month of Jay Inslee's term. Voters will have to decide among 11 candidates in that race.

I'm Deborah Wang, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW

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