Reichert’s precious parting gift: a real election, not a yawner

U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert sits with his granddaughter Emma Bussey during a reelection fundraiser breakfast in Bellevue in 2008. Spending more time with family is the main reason he’s not running again next year, Reichert told The News Tribune.
U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert sits with his granddaughter Emma Bussey during a reelection fundraiser breakfast in Bellevue in 2008. Spending more time with family is the main reason he’s not running again next year, Reichert told The News Tribune. News Tribune file photo, 2008

Pierce County voters know that congressional elections around here can be called races only in the loosest sense of the word.

These suspense-free, every-other-year civic exercises are races in the same illusory way that Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt raced against a field of also-rans on his way to eight gold medals.

They’re an epic snore-fest, a cakewalk for incumbent representatives who fill the four local congressional seats.

Denny Heck routinely wins more than 55 percent of the vote; Derek Kilmer and Dave Reichert consistently coast at 60-something percent; and Adam Smith can sleepwalk to victory with totals reliably topping 70 percent.

Safe districts are nothing new, but they got safer in 2011 when the state redistricting commission fluffed up the comfort zones of South Sound incumbents.

We figured voters would have to wait until at least 2022, after the next round of once-per-decade redistricting, to participate in a competitive congressional election. Five years to keep the flicker of hope alive.

But the outlook changed for the better last week when Reichert, R-Auburn, announced he won’t run for reelection in 2018.

The former King County sheriff, first elected to represent the 8th Congressional District in 2004, will make a graceful exit from an honorable career at the end of next year.

By deciding to step aside after seven terms, and by giving early notice of his decision, Reichert has bestowed a rare gift to Washington voters. The wide-open field will surely attract several intriguing heavyweight candidates. It will energize the political dialogue in the 8th.

It also could have important national repercussions as Democrats try to gain control of the House next year. Overnight, the 8th has gone from “a longshot Democratic pickup opportunity to one of their best chances to flip a GOP-held seat in the whole country,” writes Kyle Kondick of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan newsletter put out by the University of Virginia.

The upshot? While the rest of our region’s districts seem destined to install Congress members for life (or for as long as they care to serve), this diverse swath of territory stretching across the Cascades can now fully live up to its billing as a swing district. Opportunity and fluidity are good, no matter which party you identify with.

Political junkies can rejoice, as should average voters and working people from Eatonville to Ellensburg, Wilkeson to Wenatchee.

That’s not to say they won’t miss Reichert.

A moderate voice on many issues, the 67-year-old congressman has taken principled stands against President Trump’s anti-immigrant moves and his party’s aborted efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare. He defends our state’s interests on the environment and as a leading advocate for trade agreements, even as White House winds have blown the other way. His law-enforcement street cred and old-school Lutheran morality are admirable qualities.

“I feel physically and mentally fine,” Reichert told us in an interview Thursday, but said he’d been reflecting on how his political and public safety careers have cut short his family time. “The recent break gave me a chance to connect with my grandkids. Sitting out on Lake Chelan fishing, you have that opportunity, and it’s so few and far between.”

Is there a better reason to retire than that?

Timing-wise, Reichert said he wanted to “give the Republican field a chance to get in there and be competitive.”

We would add that he’s afforded the other party the same courtesy. A year ago, Democrat Tony Ventrella ran a flighty campaign that wasn’t treated seriously by many people, not even Ventrella. Reichert hasn’t faced a bonafide election challenge since 2010, before redistricting, nor publicly debated an opponent since 2012.

Now all the Democrats’ excuses are gone. A well-liked incumbent no longer blocks the way, and the district — which went for Hillary Clinton by 3 percentage points in 2016 — is drifting leftward, as Reichert acknowledges. It’ll be fun to see if they make hay in the 8th.

Recruitment, fundraising and other strategic steps toward campaign launches are already under way among D’s and R’s. Party discipline must be quickly enforced so the number of candidates doesn’t spiral out of control.

With around 11 months to go until the primary election, expect a grind-it-out marathon followed by a race to the finish.

Heaven knows Pierce County doesn’t get enough of those.