A surge in popularity among Democratic congressional candidates is spilling over into Washington state and imperiling the political career of Rep. Dave Reichert, who represents an area that's home to technology firms including Microsoft, Expedia, T-Mobile USA, and Sharebuilder.com.
Reichert, a two-term Republican, is no doctrinaire conservative. The National Journal has dubbed him a centrist, and his campaign Web site boasts that he opposed President Bush "54 percent of the time." A Reichert spokesman told CNET News that the 8th District is fairly libertarian and looking for a candidate who works across party lines.
That voting record isn't helping Reichert much in an election year in which Republicans popularity has waned. A SurveyUSA poll from last week showed his challenger, Darcy Burner, a 12-year Microsoft project manager, ahead by four points.
By traditional political measures, this should not be happening. The 8th congressional district has chosen a Republican in every election for the last quarter-century, and the 2000 edition of the authoritative Almanac of American Politics called it "one of the two most Republican districts in the state." It can claim to be the most affluent, too.
But in an election year where President Bush has become not just wildly unpopular but virtually invisible (he has attended zero rallies this year for Republican candidates), and Democrats are gleefully predicting a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate, traditional measures are no longer true. The apparent ascent of Burner in the polls--up from one earlier this month that put her eight points behind--is telling.
The 8th District spans a vast and diverse part of Washington, stretching from the fast-growing city of Bellevue just east of Seattle to the grand expanses of Mount Rainier in the Cascade Mountains. While the eastern and southern parts of the district are more rural, the northwestern part is home to a growing technology industry. T-Mobile, Verizon, and Expedia all employ more than 1,000 people at their respective Bellevue campuses, and part of Microsoft's Redmond campus is located within the 8th District as well. Washington's eighth is the country's fifth-highest educated district, the 20th wealthiest, and the 32nd youngest.
Burner's campaign said it expects to benefit from the enthusiasm voters have shown over Barack Obama's presidential campaign. About 250,000 people participated in Washington's caucus this year, according to Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for Burner's campaign. The previous record for a statewide caucus, he said, was around 100,000
"That is a huge influx," Kaushik said. "Caucusing is more than just filling out a ballot--these are people who are engaged, and we do expect that to a pay a dividend in November."
The district has diversified demographically, and its political leanings have shifted as well, Kaushik said.
"This was once a homogenous area and traditionally very Republican," he said. "It's now--fairly, I think--called a swing district."
Reichert managed to get re-elected in 2006, though, and his campaign director Mike Shields said "you can't really attach an ideological label to this area."
He said voters in the district tend to be libertarian and fiscally conservative and that the unique economy of the state and district compels voters to consider more than just ideology. Washington, he pointed out, is the only state to maintain a trade surplus with China.
"We're an international global market, and the folks in (the technology) sector understand that intensely," he said.
Free trade, R&D, and more
The technology community in the 8th District is concerned with free-trade agreements and the availability of H1-B visas, Shields said. Reichert has supported the Bush administration's free trade agreements, including the stalled trade agreement with Colombia.
Kaushik said Burner is supportive of free trade agreements, though she does not support the Colombian agreement as it currently stands.
"She has concerns that the trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration do not have adequate environmental and worker standards so that a level playing field is created for American workers," he said.
Both campaigns have touted their strong advocacy for R&D tax credits. Reichert pushed to get his seat on the House Science and Technology Committee to advocate for them, Shields said. Reichert has taken a stance on other tech-related issues like Yahoo's advertising agreement with Google, which is currently under investigation by the Justice Department. Given Redmond's presence in his district, it's hardly surprising he engaged in what Washingtonians delicately call "constituent service."
"It doesn't take an antitrust attorney to see that this doesn't pass a competition test," he said. "It's bad for everyone who values choice and innovation on the Internet, especially advertisers, publishers and consumers, and I call on my congressional colleagues and the Department of Justice to give it all the critical scrutiny it deserves before rejecting it."
Burner has not taken a position on the ad deal, though Kaushik said she will emphasize technology policy, especially in cases when it most directly impacts "ordinary Americans."
"She's been very opposed to the warrantless wiretapping policies and the use of technology by the government to invade the private lives of private citizens," he said. "When Darcy is elected this November, we believe she is going to be one of the most--if not the most--tech-savvy members of Congress, and she looks forward to formulating technology policy."
Both Burner and Reichert have turned to tools like YouTube to find new ways to reach out to voters. Burner has also received significant support from so-called "netroots" organizations.
Reichert's campaign, however, is using microtargeting in its Web ads in a way few others are, Shields said. Using cookied portal information from the Republican National Committee, the campaign has been sending voters tailored Web ads. Shields said the campaign is not completely sure how effective the ads are, but that it represents a refined use of technology that people in the industry will appreciate.
"People will see that and might recognize this person is a good person to represent us," he said.
One important Microsoft employee seems favorably inclined: Steve Ballmer donated the maximum amount of $2,300 to Reichert's campaign in November 2007 and again in June 2008.
It seems as if not all Microsoft employees are sold, however. According to OpenSecrets.org, an independent campaign finance tracking site, 22 Microsoft employees from the state of Washington donated $34,200 to Reichert this election cycle. Comparatively, Burner received $116,969 from 134 Washington-based Microsoft employees.
CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.