Race to replace U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings heats up

Mike Faulk, Yakima Herald-RepublicJuly 5, 2014 

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings talks to reporters Thursday in Pasco about not seeking re-election after serving 20 years in the House of Representatives.

BOB BRAWDY — Tri-City Herald

During the upheaval within the Republican Party in the past few years, retiring U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings always seemed well above the fray in the solid center of the party.

That's been the story of his 20-year tenure.

Even now, with Congress' approval rating at historic lows -- 16 percent according to a June Gallup poll -- Hastings never faced a serious challenge from the left or the far right. Observers of the 4th District say Hastings was a master of pragmatism who comfortably walked a fine line to avoid falling victim to rifts in the party that have played out in elections elsewhere since 2010.

But then Hastings announced his retirement from public office in February, and a race unlike any seen in the past 20 years began to unfold in the district. There are 12 candidates -- eight Republicans, two Democrats and two independents -- vying to replace him.

"If Doc Hastings hadn't retired, no one would be interested in this race," said Travis Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University. "Now there's an opening and everyone sees an opportunity."

As a result, the ideological power struggle taking place in the nation's capital will play out in its own way here in the absence of the incumbent.

"This race kind of fits nicely into that national narrative of establishment and tea party," said David Wasserman, House editor for the Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report.

What makes this race different from the national landscape is Washington's Top Two primary system, where it's possible -- and to some, very likely -- that two Republicans will advance to the general election. California is the only other state with a primary where all candidates compete on the same ballot to advance to the general election.

Ballots for the Aug. 5 primary will be mailed to voters by July 18, truncating opportunities for candidates to catch up or build their lead.

Wasserman said there are two candidates being watched closely by political interests back in D.C.: former state representative and state Department of Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse, who is expected to raise more money than any of the others, and former NFL tight end and Eltopia farmer Clint Didier, a far right candidate with name recognition from previous campaigns and the backing of national tea party groups.

"I think there is a sense among most Republicans in D.C. that they want someone they can work with rather than someone who's a perennial candidate who's good at getting attention for themselves," Wasserman said. "So in the (House) delegation there's probably more support for Newhouse than there is for Didier."

Didier has already promised he will vote to oust Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner from his post if elected. Many of the same people and interest groups that supported Hastings, loyal to the House Republican leadership throughout his career, are already lining up behind Newhouse, Wasserman said.

"I expect that more business groups will get behind Newhouse and help him try to compensate for the support Didier has gotten from more conservative outside groups," he said.

Then there are the other three candidates who observers say have a legitimate chance to crack the top two: State Sen. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake, Kennewick attorney George Cicotte, also a Republican, and Estakio Beltran, a Democrat from Yakima and former policy staffer for U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.

Campaign issues such as health care, immigration, agriculture and the federal deficit matter to voters, but they also need to know who the candidates are and how they project themselves, said Stan Shore, a political consultant to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and president of Polis Political Services, based in Olympia.

Shore said the lead up to the August primary for all candidates is about improving name re-cognition and establishing their persona. There will be more time to debate the issues after the top two emerge, he said.

"I think this is, going to be a matter of tone rather than issues," Shore said. "The truth is these different elections are about finding somebody that represents you and is a good model for what you want."

The Democratic candidate has polled between 30 percent and 40 percent during the past decade in races against Hastings. District Democrats like their odds with Beltran, a 31-year-old who recently completed a master's degree in public administration from Columbia University, who they endorsed enthusiastically not long after his declaration.

In this already staunchly conservative district, previous Democratic candidates suffered from facing an entrenched incumbent. A large Republican field would appear to benefit the district's more liberal bloc, but analysts say Democrats could suffer in this year's race from not having an incumbent to rally against.

With the strong ideological divide between the Republicans in the race, and the likelihood that one of them will come out on top no matter what, some Democrats will be inclined to cross party lines, observers say.

"It's possible Beltran will get into the top two, but he has no hope of winning the seat whatsoever," Wasserman said. "Voters recognize a Republican will win the district, so they may vote strategically for a Republican they may favor."

If that choice is between Didier and Newhouse, Wasserman said those Democrats will go with the more moderate Newhouse.

"It would be an interesting dance because both of these people would be aiming for the support of Republicans, but they also need to have a strategy to win the votes of Democrats," Wasserman said.

Cicotte, who has campaigned aggressively to surge out of relative anonymity, might benefit from the absence of other candidates from the Tri-Cities in the race. That he's a Mormon in an area with a sizeable enough population that shares that faith -- up to 20 percent of the district by some consultants' estimates -- might also motivate voters who other candidates couldn't reach.

Cicotte "has a built-in base throughout the district," Shore said. "I wouldn't count him out, either."

Holmquist has statewide recognition, having served in the Legislature since 2000. She served first in the House of Representatives, then in 2006 became the youngest woman ever elected to the state Senate, at age 31.

In that time she endeared herself to many conservative leaders also serving in Olympia and leads the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. She also criticized her own party leaders for supporting state financial aid for undocumented students, temporarily pulling her name from the Majority Coalition Caucus's website in protest.

But the legislative district Holmquist represents fell largely out of the 4th Congressional District after the state Redistricting Commission shifted Kittitas County to Rep. Dave Reichert's 8th District in 2011.

When Kittitas County left the district, so did a number of voters familiar with Holmquist. Wasserman said her best shot will be to make a strong statement in Grant County and hope the other candidates split the rest of the vote "very evenly."

"I don't think she has made the top tier of the race quite yet," Wasserman said.

Holmquist is also the only woman in the race. Shore said that gives her another base of support other candidates will have to work harder to sway.

"There are a lot of reasons why people might prefer to vote for a woman," Shore said. "Her name ID, accomplishments in Olympia, all play toward her having a substantial base."

There are seven other candidates in this race, none of whom are likely to advance, but could take enough votes combined to skew the results in a tight race.

They are Gavin Seim, a portraitist from Ephrata who declared three months before Hastings announced his retirement; Josh Ramirez, a Hanford project controls analyst living in Pasco; Richard Wright, a retired physical therapist from Kennewick; Kevin Midbust, a retail shift supervisor from Richland; Gordon Pross, an Ellensburg resident who has run for federal office eight times; Glen Stockwell, a Ritzville business owner; and Tony Sandoval, a small-business owner from Yakima.

Although labor unions and all of the district's Democratic committees quickly endorsed Beltran, Wasserman said he thinks Sandoval will still cut into his vote total.

On the conservative side, some far-right groups in the state, such as the Republican Liberty Caucus, are holding off on endorsements with Seim and Didier in the race.

Analysts also expect turnout will be low without any other major state or federal races on the ballot. Who that favors is also anyone's guess.

"It's hard to gauge the possibilities," Ridout said.

Shore said the campaigns are likely spending heavily on identifying clusters of voters who would side with their candidates and tweaking their messages to motivate them.

"They want to maximize turnout in each of their respective areas," Shore said.

Heavy advertising by mail and over the airwaves will also pick up in the next few weeks ahead of ballots going out on July 18, Shore said. If two Republicans advance, he said voters can expect an even greater bombardment.

"I think the runoff between two Republicans would be pretty brutal," Shore said. "After the primary has run its course, the campaigns frequently turn very negative, and the 4th District hasn't been treated to that in some time."

The speculation varies on who will finish in the top two primary spots, but most believe Newhouse is a lock for one of those spots.

The Didier campaign conducted an internal poll in late May that showed him with a lead over Newhouse of less than 8 percentage points. But the poll, conducted by Lansing, Mich.-based Team Telcom and released last week, had a limited sample of 400 "likely voters," with more than 58 percent not stating which of the 12 candidates they favor.

A straw poll among attendees at a Benton County GOP candidate forum on June 18 resulted in 126 votes for Cicotte, a Benton County resident, 33 each for Newhouse and Holmquist, and 30 for Didier. Seim received 14 votes, Midbust had three and Stockwell received one.

"A poll at this point isn't very useful," Wasserman said. "We would expect Didier to start out with the most name recognition, but Newhouse will have the most money and the election will look far different than it does today."

If there are undecided voters, Shore said they likely won't make the difference. He said candidates will be successful if they can find the people who already agree with them and get them to mail in their ballots.

"Every one of the candidates has enough potential voters to win the election," Shore said. "It's a matter of pushing the turnout as much as it is persuading people on the issues."

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