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Originally published May 12, 2012 at 7:04 PM | Page modified May 12, 2012 at 7:54 PM

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The race is on to fill new 1st Congressional District

Seven candidates are running for Congress in Washington's new 1st District, which became more rural and conservative after the once-a-decade redistricting process. More than $1.7 million has poured into the campaigns as candidates — particularly a crowded field of Democrats — compete for big-name endorsements.

Seattle Times staff reporter

1st District special election

Confusing dual elections: A special election to replace U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, who quit the 1st District seat in March to run for governor, is being held concurrent with the August primary and November general election. The winner will serve one month. Because the district's boundaries shifted in redistricting, about 40 percent of the new 1st District will also vote in the special election.

Washington Secretary of State

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EVERETT — The new 1st Congressional District is a hub for software code, raspberries and dairy cows, but for the next six months, it will also most likely be a net exporter of sharp partisan rhetoric and an importer of political cash.

More than $1.7 million has already poured into campaigns as candidates — particularly a crowded field of Democrats — claw for big-name endorsements.

Although candidates won't even file for office until later this week, the race for the vacant 1st District seat is on the national political radar for its potential to flip from blue to red thanks to once-a-decade redistricting. What was once a liberal saltwater curl represented by Rep. Jay Inslee is now an inland "swing" district reaching from Redmond to Canada.

The Democratic establishment is coalescing behind Suzan DelBene, a former Microsoft vice president who largely self-funded her losing 2010 campaign against U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, who represents the 8th District.

But in this year of economic anxiety and the noise surrounding the Occupy movement, DelBene's opponents are taking jabs at her wealth, to appeal to struggling families.

As Darcy Burner, a progressive activist who twice lost to Reichert, says: "There's already an overrepresentation of the 1 percent in Washington, D.C."

Independent expenditures — and the attack ads they pay for — likely will loom large this fall, in part because Republicans sense opportunity. Snohomish County Council Member John Koster, the only Republican in the race, is largely out of the fray as Democrats jostle toward the top-two Aug. 7 primary. Polls show Koster with a commanding lead overall and Burner leading among Democrats.

Anticipating the campaign to come, Koster, who lost his own congressional race in 2010, said he hopes to avoid "demagoguing and vitriol," which "sours people on politics." On his website, Koster warns that "progressive/socialist policies will continue to wreak havoc on our economy" unless he wins in November.

"I'm sure there will be plenty of money on both sides, and vitriol on both sides," he said in an interview.

Microcosm of the state

The state redistricting commission — with two Democrats and two Republicans — drew the 1st District in part to help incumbents in neighboring districts.

Reichert lost liberal high-tech territory in north King County, and the more conservative exurbs and farms of Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties were excised from longtime Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen's district.

The result, as Koster said, makes "people scratch their heads." The 130-mile long swath includes the top raspberry-producing county in the U.S. (Whatcom) and the wealthiest Zip code in Washington (Medina). With jobs tied to Boeing, agriculture and high-tech, the district is a microcosm of the state.

It voted heavily for President Obama in 2008 but opted, by a slim margin, for Dino Rossi over Patty Murray in the 2010 Senate race. Slade Gorton, a redistricting commissioner, called it "the most evenly divided congressional district in the United States of America."

The Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball, two nonpartisan political handicappers, list the new district as "leans Democratic."

The candidates, in addition to Koster, DelBene and Burner: Democrats former Kirkland state legislator-turned-fundraiser Laura Ruderman; centrist state Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens; Bothell high-tech entrepreneur Darshan Rauniyar; and independent Larry Ishmael.

Regional issues, including immigration enforcement along the northern border, have been lost in the shadow of economic anxiety. But the Democrats face an early litmus test in a proposed coal-export terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham. Two Democratic Party backbones — labor unions and environmentalists — are on opposing sides

Only Hobbs — in favor — and Rauniyar — against — have taken a position. The three female candidates hedged in interviews last week. "It's complicated," said Ruderman.

Bellingham political blogger Riley Sweeney said voters in the north part of the district, where unemployment runs high, said voters most want a "bulldog in the fight." Asked if the Democrats in the race are too liberal to win, Sweeney, who runs the left-leaning Political Junkie blog, said, "I think that's a Seattle way of looking at things."

Sharp differences

Unemployment in Skagit County hovers at 9.6 percent, the highest in Puget Sound's I-5 corridor, and throughout the district, voters voice frustration about Congress' inability to spur growth while controlling spending.

"People aren't talking about guns, gay marriage, certainly not abortion," said Heather Weiner, political director of the Teamsters Joint Council No. 28, which endorsed DelBene.

Asked about the economy, the five Democrats, in interviews last week, each pull on their biographies.

Rauniyar, who launched a tech startup, Flash Ventures, said he immigrated as a teenager from Nepal after his father died. Hobbs, an Iraq war veteran, said he owes more on his house than it is worth. Ruderman emphasized that her kids attended public school. Burner, who headed the political group Progressive Congress until she entered the race, often talks about her family's struggles.

DelBene's résumé looms largest. She was appointed Gov. Chris Gregoire's Department of Revenue director after an executive career at Microsoft and Drugstore.com, among others. She and her husband, Kurt, a Microsoft president, live in a $4.8 million Lake Washington waterfront home and said she would, like last time, put her own money into her campaign.

"We talk about the American dream, yet we're in a place where we're making it harder and harder. I don't know if I would be able to tell my same story if I were growing up today," she said.

In an apparent effort to trim the field, Gregoire and Larsen endorsed DelBene, as did the state Washington State Labor Council.

But King County Democrats struggled with their pick.

A subcommittee recommended DelBene and Burner, but then backed away from Burner when a Twitter message she sent in August 2011, while at Progressive Congress, became public. In it, she criticized President Obama during the debt-ceiling debate, writing, "Barack Obama isn't a bad Democrat — because he's not a Democrat. He's a Republican."

Steve Zemke, chair of the King County Democrats, said the party likely won't endorse a single candidate because Burner, Ruderman and DelBene each have fans and are running vigorous campaigns. "I'll say this, they're not easily scared out of the race," he said.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jmartin206.

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