She’s got zero political experience, unless you count a stint as president of her suburban community club. But somehow, Democrat Darcy Burner is waging a serious challenge to freshman Republican Rep. Dave Reichert.
A single image, constantly replayed in pro-Burner ads, hints at the reason for the unexpectedly close race: Reichert grinning from the doorway of Air Force One, shoulder-to-shoulder with an unpopular President Bush.
In Burner’s book, that makes Reichert a Bush Republican plain and simple. “He’s reinforced that notion over and over again,” she said mischievously, “but it was awfully kind of him to make it clear.”
Burner’s underdog campaign is trumpeting that theme as the race enters its final weeks, hoping negative headlines for Republicans will help her win in the district. Polls suggest the race is even.
Democrats need to gain 15 seats to seize control of the House, and the party has put the district on its target list. The national Democratic committee has spent nearly $400,000 on ads.
If Burner succeeds, it could be one of the clearest signs of an anti-GOP tide stirred by Bush’s poor standing. In Washington state, Bush’s approval rating is at 36 percent.
Republicans portray Burner as too inexperienced, but they are taking her challenge seriously.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent about $1.3 million on the race so far, and spokesman Jonathan Collegio hints that the GOP won’t be shy about matching the $4 million it spent on Reichert’s 2004 victory if necessary.
Reichert also has a heftier campaign account — about $1.3 million on hand compared with Burner’s $780,000 — and priceless name recognition, built over 30 years in law enforcement and two terms as an elected sheriff.
He gained national recognition after the 2001 capture of the long-sought Green River Killer, an arrest that came early in Reichert’s second term as King County sheriff.
“I know this district inside out,” Reichert said. “I think the choice is clear between the two of us. I’m experienced, and I’m a leader.”
In Bellevue, the Seattle suburb that is the district’s economic hub, voter Stacy Storey spoke of knowing about Reichert from professional circles that predate his term in Congress.
But she couldn’t quite come up with his challenger’s name — Bruener? Brunner?
The Democrat is too green, Storey said, waiting for a bus with her two young children.
“I like qualified candidates,” Storey said. “She just doesn’t strike me as qualified as Mr. Reichert.”
Reichert, 56, is the latest in an unbroken line of center-right congressional Republicans from the district, a swath of suburbs and rural areas east and southeast of reliably liberal Seattle. The home of Microsoft founder Bill Gates is in the district.
But the district also is tilting toward Democrats. In 2004, when Reichert won his first term with just 52 percent of the vote, his constituents favored Democrats John Kerry for president and Patty Murray for Senate.
To fend off challenges from his left, Reichert cites his votes against GOP leadership on oil drilling in Alaska’s wilderness and federal intervention to save the brain-damaged Florida woman, Terri Schiavo.
Republicans have sent their top fundraisers to help: Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and first lady Laura Bush among them.
Burner, 35, is a Harvard graduate who worked for a few high-tech firms on her way to becoming a project manager at Microsoft.
Burner left that job to focus on politics and emerged, despite her lack of experience, as the only Democrat to challenge Reichert. She quickly turned heads after raising more money than Reichert in the first quarter of 2006 — a feat she has repeated in subsequent campaign cash reports.
For each of Reichert’s moves to the center, Burner says, he’s taken positions out of step with the district. She cites his opposition to abortion except in cases of rape or incest.
But most important for her campaign will be the ability to tap into anti-Republican sentiment, a task made easier with the help of feisty Web-based political activists pulling for the Democrat.
Even in stronger Republican areas of the district, a notable number of people have been volunteering for Burner’s campaign, said David Olson, a Democratic activist and retired businessman from rural North Bend.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed,” said Olson, 77. “My idea is just to work for her in every way I can, and just hope she’s one of those 15 seats to take that power of the purse over to the other side.”
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