Democrats snatched control of the House of Representatives in 2006, and after picking up a few seats in special elections this year they now enjoy a 37-seat advantage. But more than a few Democratic challengers couldn't quite crack the Republican stronghold on vulnerable districts, and some of the congressional wannabes are back to take a second shot at the seats they came close to stealing. Two such repeat candidates are Darcy Burner and Dan Seals, who are running in suburban, Democratic-trending districts in the Seattle and Chicago areas. The national party is targeting the seats, as both candidates are on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Red-to-Blue list, which picks organized challengers in Republican-held districts to receive support. Both Burner and Seals spoke with RealClearPolitics at the Netroots Nation convention in Austin last month and explained why they think they'll see a different outcome this year. Burner is running against a bit of history: Washington's 8th District, which encompasses eastern Seattle and its suburbs, has never elected a Democrat since it was first formed in 1982. She's also running against a bit of a hero: Rep. Dave Reichert gained national acclaim while serving as King County sheriff for his role in capturing the "Green River Killer," who terrorized Seattle for more than two decades. The 8th is possibly the most affluent district in the state -- Microsoft founder Bill Gates lives there -- and one Burner came just two points shy of winning in 2006.
In the last election, Burner matched Reichert in spending, and as she put it, came just 5 voters per precinct from winning. "It's time," Burner said, when asked why she thinks she'll win. "This is a district that has been changing a lot over the last several years. The number of new people in the district is huge, and the people who have lived in the district are also changing."
Fundraising certainly is not a problem. Burner raised more than $300,000 in the first quarter of 2006 -- which caught the eye of the national party -- and went on to match Reichert in spending through the general election. Through the second quarter of this year, Burner had raised almost $2 million and had $1.25 million in the bank -- both higher than Reichert's numbers. Last week she released the first TV ad of the campaign, a 60-second spot running on both network and cable channels in Seattle.
However, some observers believe Burner's positions could be too liberal for the district, which both John Kerry and Al Gore carried narrowly in the last two presidential elections despite Republicans carrying it at the congressional level. "Burner is the Democratic alternative" to Reichert, noted John D. Wilkerson, a political scientist at the University of Washington. "She doesn't have much of a political track record and she has staked out very left positions in a moderate district."
Wilkerson, though, also said that the district itself appears to be moving left and that even Reichert has begun championing local environmental issues to stay aligned with the voters. "My hunch is that if there is a Democratic wave nationally, Reichert will be one of the incumbents who is swept away by it," he said. "But the race is a toss-up if the national pattern is more competitive."
Burner has become a leader in the anti-war movement, helping compose "A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq," which she introduced as an alternative to what she seemed to be hearing were the only two possibilities: "stay the course or chaos and destruction." Since its launch in March, the plan has been endorsed by more than 50 congressional candidates around the country, as well as four retired military leaders with whom she consulted on the plan. It's also helped make Burner a darling of the Netroots community, which has helped organize and fundraise for her. Whether this helps her in November is still unclear.
"My sense is that 2006 might have been a peak for Democrats in Washington," said Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University political scientist. "At least, our polls showed the war was a bigger issue then versus now, and that had to help Burner in 2006.
"If there's an Obama mobilization effect this year, or an anti-incumbent vote due to the economy, there might be a trend toward Democrats in the 8th. The big question is will that trend be as large as the anti-war spike in 2006?"
Running in the 10th District of Illinois in Chicago's North Shore suburbs, Seals could also feel the effects of Barack Obama's vast campaign network. In 2006, Seals -- who like Burner was a political neophyte coming out of the corporate world -- fell 6 points short of defeating the incumbent Republican Mark Kirk. And like Burner's district, Kerry and Gore also carried the 10th by small margins despite Kirk being elected as well.
"While the district has a Republican partisan leaning, it has been a swing district for some time," said Wayne Steger, a political scientist at DePaul University. "The split ticket voting indicates that party preferences are soft at the margins and the district could go either way."
Unlike Burner's district, the DCCC failed to see a pick-up opportunity here until late in the 2006 campaign, and Seals - who spent a respectable $1.8 million -- was still outspent two-to-one by Kirk. Seals, therefore, was forced to rely on a large and well-organized grassroots campaign. Seals said he, like Burner, found a large amount of support in the Netroots community "long before the Democratic Party was returning my phone calls."
"It is the same," Seals said, when asked to compare his campaign this year to 2006. "We didn't want to change what was working. What was working was our message, and what was working was the grassroots approach."
Seals said that the approach appears to be working again, as he is one of the most well-funded congressional challengers in the country and through the second quarter of this year has already surpassed what he raised in 2006. Kirk, however, still holds a two-to-one fundraising advantage.
"Kirk's been more active in the district, emphasizing case work a bit more and raising money more than he did in 2006 when Seals seemed to have surprised him," Steger said. "Kirk is taking nothing for granted, so this is going to be a tough, close race."
In explaining why he believes he'll win this year, Seals noted the more than 1,000 volunteers he's signed up and touches on a common theme from the Obama campaign.
"The interest in change is bigger than it was in 2006," Seals said. "What we are seeing is record turnout at our events, and if you look at the election turnout for the primary," Democratic turnout was three times as high this year compared to 2006. Seals defeated a well-funded challenger, Jay Footlik, with 81 percent of the vote in the Feb. 5 primary.
"2008 is shaping up as a bad year for Republicans, so we will have to see whether Kirk's efforts to connect himself to these voters will pay off in November; or whether Seals's efforts to associate Kirk with an unpopular president will work," said Steger, who could just as easily have been talking about Reichert and Burner.