Who can beat Republican Dino Rossi? Democratic rivals jostle in pivotal 8th Congressional District

Five Democrats in the 8th Congressional District race faced off in a debate that showcased broad agreement on issues from tighter gun restrictions to expanded government-sponsored health care.

Five Democrats vying to become the party standard bearer in Washington’s closely watched 8th Congressional District race faced off in a debate Wednesday night that showcased broad agreement on issues from tighter gun restrictions to expanded government-sponsored health care.

Arrayed on a stage at a Green River College auditorium in Auburn, the rivals frequently smiled, nodded and applauded one another’s denunciations of Republicans in Congress and the agenda of President Donald Trump.

Elbows were mainly thrown over who has the strategy and resume to compete with Republican Dino Rossi this fall, in a race to flip the historically Republican district made newly competitive with the retirement of seven-term Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn.

“The real question here is who can beat Dino Rossi, right? I am the one who can beat him,” said Kim Schrier, a Sammamish pediatrician who has emerged as the leading fundraiser among Democrats in the race. Schrier described herself as “a woman physician with a fire in her belly” and a “missing voice in Congress.”

Jason Rittereiser, a former prosecutor who grew up in Ellensburg, argued he can connect with voters on both sides of the district, which spans the Cascade Mountains.

“I cut hay in the Kittitas Valley to pay for my education,” said Rittereiser, emphasizing the 8th District is “not Seattle.” He added: “We can beat Dino Rossi, but we’re going to have to do it in every corner of this district.

Shannon Hader, a doctor with Auburn roots, who has worked as a top manager at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, touted her experience working in the federal government, managing programs with $2 billion dollar budgets and thousands of employees across the globe. “Compared with Dino Rossi and frankly every candidate in this race, I am the only candidate with the track record … of delivering results,” she said.

Hader also publicly raised a tension that has been bubbling underneath the surface in the 8th District contest, hinting darkly at Democratic power brokers seeking to stack the deck in favor of Schrier, who has been endorsed by top labor groups and the liberal fund-raising powerhouse EMILY’s List.

Without naming Schrier directly, Hader said, “We need a robust, free and fair primary election, not a coronation” decided by “party insiders” or “big-money interests.”

Brayden Olson, a local entrepreneur who has self-funded his campaign, said his business background and focus on middle-class job growth would appeal to independents. At 30 years old, he said he also can be a bridge to millennials. “Let’s give them someone who represents them, so they can come out and vote and win us this district.”

Robert Hunziker, an information-technology worker, introduced himself as “a disabled, working-class millennial stuck in the gig economy” and returned again and again to “the corrupting influence of money” in politics, saying it prevents progress on all other issues. He said he was proud to refuse corporate donations and that the average contribution to his campaign was $25.

Other candidates who have raised much more cash nevertheless joined in criticizing money in politics, particularly “dark money” steered to groups that do not disclose donors, and contributions from certain powerful industries.

Schrier attacked Rossi for backing over the years from the National Rifle Association, and said she would not take money from the NRA, big tobacco, pharmaceutical or oil companies.

The debate, moderated by representatives of the 47th Legislative District Democrats and the Washington State Labor Council, drew a crowd of a few hundred people, an impressive turnout for this early in the election year, and an indicator of the enthusiasm building among Democratic activists in the midterm elections.

The candidates on Wednesday largely agreed on further restrictions on military-style rifles and on working toward a single-payer “Medicare for all” health system or some other form of guaranteed universal health care. They took turns criticizing the tax-cutting and anti-immigration agenda of the Trump administration.

They also bashed the Republican tax-reform law for directing most of its benefits to the wealthiest Americans, and vowed to fight efforts to use budget shortfalls projected to be caused by the tax law as a reason to cut benefits for Social Security or Medicaid.

“I am so angry about where our country is headed,” said Rittereiser, recounting meeting “Fran” in Ellensburg, who worried her meager food assistance would be further reduced.

“I am really frankly horrified by the xenophobia I am seeing coming out of this administration,” said Schrier, who like the other Democrats favors quick action to protection DACA recipients and said the U.S. should not break up immigrant families.

By some measures it’s early in the race. The official candidate-filing deadline is May 18, and the top-two primary is Aug. 7. But while Democrats are fighting out a contested primary, Rossi has no Republican rivals and is using his clear path to sop up donations, building a significant fund-raising lead since declaring in late September. That explains why some Democrats would like to finish the primary fight and focus on November.

Republicans appear to have settled on Rossi, a former state senator from Sammamish, who is well-known from three unsuccessful runs for statewide office, most recently a 2010 bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. In addition to name-recognition and experience as a candidate and legislator, Rossi has piled up a campaign-cash advantage — raising more than $1.3 million through the end of last year. Schrier led the Democratic field over that period, raising nearly $600,000.

Reichert’s retirement announcement in September put the district in play, and it could be a key in the fight over partisan control of the U.S. House. To flip that chamber from Republican control, Democrats would need a net gain of 24 seats in the midterms.

The 8th District once included Democratic-leaning parts of Bellevue, but was redrawn to become more rural and conservative in a round of redistricting after the 2010 census. The 8th District spans the Cascade Mountains, ranging from portions of Eastern King and Pierce counties to Kittitas and Chelan counties.

While it has never sent a Democrat to Congress, the district has favored Democratic candidates for president, including Hillary Clinton (narrowly) in 2016.