How Republican is Rep. Dave Reichert?
The congressman's party loyalty has run hot and cold, and now his re-election may depend on convincing voters of his independence.
Seattle Times staff reporter
One in a series of stories exploring the candidates and issues in the 8th Congressional District race.
Republican Congressman Dave Reichert got his political start from a Democrat when County Executive Ron Sims appointed him King County sheriff in 1997.
The two met for lunch to discuss the nonpartisan position, and as they ate, Sims asked Reichert a friendly question: "Are you a Democrat?"
Reichert wouldn't answer, Sims said.
Five years later, rumors circulated that Reichert might run for governor. But even then, his party allegiance wasn't clear.
Now as he runs for his third term in the 8th Congressional District, Reichert's political future may depend on his ability to convince voters he's not a hard-line Republican, but rather an independent-minded pragmatist who happens to have an "R" after his name.
"If he can't represent himself as a moderate Republican, he's dead in the water," said John Gastil, a professor of political communication at the University of Washington.
Political shifts both locally and nationally pose a challenge for the former sheriff.
The 8th District, which covers eastern King and Pierce counties, was once solidly Republican territory but now is considered a classic swing district. In 2004, voters favored Democrat John Kerry for president but supported Republican Dino Rossi for governor.
And with an unpopular war in Iraq, an unpopular president in the White House and the present economic downturn, many Republicans fear the worst this November.
Reichert often opposes the Republican leadership, even on some of the closest votes in Congress. Last year, Congressional Quarterly ranked him among the Republicans most likely to vote against his party and against President Bush's positions.
But he's stood behind the president on the war in Iraq and tax cuts. And he relies on prominent Republicans to raise money for his campaign. On June 15, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich attended a fundraiser for Reichert, and House Republican leader John Boehner was scheduled for an event this past weekend.
Even as he advertises his ties to party leaders, his staff is quick to point out their differences.
"Dave's not an ideologue. Dave is a pragmatist," said Mike Shields, Reichert's chief of staff. "He was a cop. The other side wants him to be a right-wing conservative, but the fact is, he isn't."
Voting against his party
Nonpartisan journals routinely rate Reichert as a moderate, and a Congressional Quarterly analysis showed he voted against his party 27 percent of the time last year.
When Bush threatened early this month to veto climate-change legislation, Reichert's office fired off a news release criticizing the president.
He's certainly more liberal on most issues than the state's two other Republican members of Congress, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Spokane, and Doc Hastings, of Pasco.
In his first two terms in Congress, he went against his party on several key votes. In 2005 he opposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Last year, he joined 37 Republicans in voting to loosen Bush's restrictions on stem-cell research, and he voted to override the president's veto of a children's health-care program expansion.
He is one of eight members of a bipartisan House working group called the Centrist Health Care Coalition, which is seeking solutions to the country's medical-care problems, and is a member of the moderate Republican House caucus. He recently recruited Washington Democratic Reps. Norm Dicks and Jay Inslee to co-sponsor a bill expanding the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area.
Reichert said Republican leaders see him as an "independent thinker and an independent voter."
"It's about solving problems," he said. "This bickering back and forth is a waste of time. It's tiresome. I just think sometimes it gets childish."
Still, Reichert is a reliable Republican vote on many issues. He supports keeping troops in Iraq and has voted with the president consistently on the war. He supports Bush's tax cuts and opposes abortion.
Democrat Darcy Burner, his chief opponent, says Reichert's votes don't tell the whole story. She points to a voting pattern she says proves Reichert is not really a moderate, despite his final votes on issues. Often, he votes with Republicans on procedural motions, then switches sides and votes with Democrats in the final roll call.
For example, on an energy bill last year, Reichert voted with his fellow Republicans several times — against Democratic motions to close the bill to amendments and bring it to a vote. But in the final vote, he sided with Democrats to pass the bill.
"How can you end up on both sides of the vote?" asked Sandeep Kaushik, Burner's spokesman.
Kaushik says Reichert in fact is trying to manipulate his image to ensure his re-election. Reichert rarely casts the deciding vote when going against his party on an important issue, Kaushik says, and he joins the Democrats when they are going to win anyway.
Strategy not uncommon
Reichert wouldn't be the first to use that strategy, said Matt Barreto, a UW political-science professor.
"It is a common thing that you see a lot that allows a politician to portray themselves a moderate," he said.
Reichert's chief of staff, Shields, said the votes are easily explained. Reichert might agree with his party on a procedure, such as whether to bring a bill to a vote or keep it open for amendments. Regardless of the outcome of those votes, he still may side with Democrats on an overall issue, Shields said.
Republican leadership notices when Reichert breaks from his party, Shields said. They send him e-mail, Shields said, and try to persuade him on the floor to vote with the party. He said Reichert is resisting pressure now to support drilling in the Arctic refuge amid rising gas prices.
Still, Republican leadership is OK with Reichert's politics, said Julie Shutley, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).
"He's being an independent voice for his district," Shutley said. Congressional members, she said, "are not always in agreement with leadership, with Washington, or with the president. There are some times when they're acting on what's best for their district."
National party leaders are sophisticated enough to understand that Reichert might not be able to win re-election if he always agrees with them, said Mark A. Smith, a UW professor of political science.
"He can distance himself as much as he wants and it will be done, I think, with the tacit approval of the NRCC," Smith said. "They're willing to look the other way."
Indeed, when the national Republican Party decides where to donate its money this year, it will aim to keep as many Republicans in office as possible, regardless of ideology, Shutley said.
No doubt Reichert would happily accept the help.
After three congressional seats went to Democrats in special elections in the spring, the respected Cook Political Report determined that Burner's chances of winning improved. It updated the 8th District race from "lean Republican" to a "tossup."
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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