In WA's hottest congressional race, look to Leavenworth
Leavenworth, Washington, is nestled in the North Cascades just a couple hours from Seattle. But with shops that look like gingerbread houses selling lederhosen and cuckoo clocks, it almost feels like you’re thousands of miles away in a real Bavarian village.
“People here are very independent," said Marco Aurilio, who serves on the Leavenworth City Council. "They climb mountains, win cross country ski races, and spend a huge percentage of their time outdoors.”
But the Leavenworth area doesn’t just look and sound different. According to Aurilio, the politics are different here, too.
“You can blend conservativism with liberalism, with progressivism, and I think you come up with a unique independent profile of a political person,” he said.
On abortion, for example, many of the residents KUOW interviewed expressed views that were less predictable than those you might encounter in deeper blue or deeper red cities across the state.
Mike Cecka described himself as a loyal Democratic Party voter who is adamantly opposed to former President Trump and the relentless GOP conspiracy theories about the 2020 election supposedly being stolen.
But Cecka also expressed “mixed feelings” about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“I know how I feel about it in my head and I know how I feel about it in my heart, and the two of them are a little bit conflicting,” Cecka said.
On the other side, Jim and Linda Gallegly are both self-described conservatives who live north of town.
“Biden's just a puppet on a string, that's all Biden is," Jay Gallegly said. "I'd rather have Trump back up in there.”
But they both called abortion, “a mother’s right.”
Voters here are also different because they’re more powerful this year. The area is the heart of Washington’s 8th Congressional District, which the Cook Political Report identified as one of only about two dozen toss-up races out of 435 U.S. House races this year.
That means this district’s voters could have an outsized influence on which political party controls the U.S. House of Representatives next year. That’s in contrast to over 80% of places like Seattle and Spokane, where the results are almost a foregone conclusion.
Within the 8th district, Leavenworth is a “bellwether,” according to political consultant Ben Anderstone. That means a strong swing in the partisan vote here in either direction in the August primary could signal where the district is headed in fall of 2022.
“It's going to be an intense battleground this year,” Anderstone said.
Incumbent Kim Schrier flipped this seat from Republicans to Democrats for the first time in its history back in 2018. But polls suggest it could be an uphill battle for Democrats in swing districts like this one all over the country.
Schrier’s camp hopes her focus on serving this district’s farmers and other constituents, as well as her support for a bill that would make abortion a national right will resonate with voters.
She's facing several Republican challengers who hope voter dissatisfaction with inflation, a spike in crime, and other issues will flip the seat back in their column.
The best-funded Republican candidates include long-serving King County Council member Reagan Dunn; former Army Ranger Jesse Jensen, who ran for this seat in 2020; and former Pierce County Deputy Prosecutor Matt Larkin, who ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general in 2020.
In an earlier era, politicians hoping to win in swing districts would often break with their party on a key issue or two. That’s what Jennifer Dunn did when she represented the 8th from 1993 to 2005. Dunn was a self-described “pro-choice” Republican, although she opposed any taxpayer funding for abortion.
But these days, elected officials are expected to mirror the views of their party on every issue, according to University of Washington political science professor Jake Grumbach.
“Over time, as the parties have really nationalized, it's become harder for candidates to stake out a sort of unique position, even when that could potentially earn them a few more votes in a single election,” Grumbach said.
Candidates are expected to signal their ideological loyalty to donors and conservative special interest groups, Grumbach said, rather than to the independent voters they need to win in districts like the 8th.
This year, Jennifer Dunn’s son Reagan Dunn told KUOW he is “pro-choice” just like his mom. But following the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe, Dunn voted against a county measure to protect abortion rights.
His opponents on the Republican side, Jensen, and Larkin, go even further. Both support a federal ban on abortion. Dunn does not.
Now it's up to voters in Leavenworth and elsewhere in the district to decide which candidate is the best fit for their sometimes-heterodox politics.
In the upcoming August primary, just the top two candidates will make it through to the general election.