SEATTLE — Two years ago, Washington state sent six Republican freshmen to Congress, more than any other state in the country. Riding the Republican tidal wave of 1994, those freshmen create a dramatic change in the political landscape of this state.
Now, as they run for reelection to the House of Representatives, the verdict on their revolution appears to be up in the air. Voters here appear ready to elect a Democratic president and governor. Will the Republican freshmen get swept out with the tide or will they buck it? Polls show that most of the races are too close to call.
In Washington's First District, GOP incumbent Rick White is getting a full taste of how prickly and unpredictable voters are feeling. Mr. White, perceived to be more moderate than the other freshmen in the delegation, has won the endorsement on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper over his opponent Jeff Coopersmith.
On a recent afternoon at the Lake Forest Park Town Center, a large strip mall in his district, White encountered an older woman who says she voted for him last time, but was extremely disappointed with the performance of the Republican Congress, especially the government shutdown last year.
"You had the opportunity of a lifetime and you blew it. It's too bad you wanted all or nothing because you got nothing," she says, shaking her head. White politely disagrees with her and points out what the Republican Congress has accomplished. "We definitely learned some lessons," White says.
Outside the store he says, "I think it's fair to say the Republicans overplayed their hand. We were all at fault, we had a feeling of invincibility that first year."
The lingering anger over the government shutdown and the Republican agenda on issues like Medicare, education, and environment seems to have hurt other freshmen as well.
Perhaps the most vulnerable is the Ninth District's Randy Tate, who was out-polled by more than a thousand votes by his Democratic challenger Adam Smith in the primary. This swing district voted for George Bush in 1988 and Bill Clinton on 1992 and polls indicate the congressional race is too close to identify a leader.
Mr. Tate, just 28 when he was elected to Congress with 52 percent of the vote, has been consistently conservative, voting with party leaders 97 percent of the time. In his eyes, the election is about the "higher taxes, bigger government, and [unbalanced] budgets" that his challenger Adam Smith and a Democratic congress would offer the country. "I really feel we are seizing the middle ground," counters Mr. Smith, a state senate member who's just a year older than Tate. "He's too partisan."
Heavy hitters from both parties have made recent Washington appearances and acknowledged the importance of this year's Congressional races. At a Seattle rally, Vice President Al Gore urged Washingtonians to "call Newt Gingrich's bluff" and turn Congress over to the Democrats, telling the crowd that the eyes of the nation are on Washington.
Surveys indicate the message may be resonating among voters. Even Linda Smith, who has angered GOP leaders over her push for campaign finance reform, is now perceived as a Gingrich clone. Earlier this year she flirted with running for governor and was considered a good bet for reelection, but Brian Baird, her Democratic challenger, has made this one of the state's most hotly contested races.
Mr. Baird, chair of the psychology department at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, calls Smith an extremist. This district had a strong Democratic vote and Connelly says it is possible some GOP moderates will also vote for Baird. He says Smith may be hurt by "the loudmouth factor" because she is seen as grandstanding, trying to make a national splash while not paying enough attention to the folks back home.
In the Second District, Jack Metcalf is facing a surprisingly strong challenge from a Democratic member of the state senate, Kevin Quigley.
Only the Fifth District's George Nethercutt, who earned the nickname "giant killer" with his 1992 defeat of former Democratic Speaker of the House Tom Foley, appears to have a comfortable lead over his opponent Judy Olson, a wheat farmer. A poll published last week in the Spokane Spokesman Review showed Nethercutt with a 14-point lead.
What worries West Coast Republican candidates is the possibility that the presidential election could be decided before their polls close, discouraging their voters from going out.