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Republican Recriminations Fly In 1st District Congressional Race

1st District Republican candidate John Koster
Deborah Wang

The 1st District was supposed to be the Republican Party’s best chance of picking up a Congressional seat in the state this year. But after Democrats won the seat decisively, Republicans are pointing fingers over who is to blame.

Republican John Koster conceded the race Friday to Democrat Suzan DelBene. Koster has been trailing DelBene in the vote count.

In an email to supporters, Koster blamed the loss on money, saying DelBene’s campaign outspent him 5-to-1. He also criticized both the state and national Republican parties for failing to give his campaign more than token support. The Koster campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Republican leaders took issue with Koster's assessment.

“Bluntly, it was a weak candidate on the part of the Republicans and a strong candidate on the part of the Democrats,” said Republican former US Senator Slade Gorton.

State Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur said Koster’s claim is a cheap shot.

“We did everything we could to help the campaign,” Wilbur said. “They refused to accept advice from us, they failed miserably in their fundraising, and they continued to stumble along and not reassess what was going wrong.”

Too Conservative For The 1st District?

Koster is a conservative Republican who sits on the Snohomish County Council. Throughout the race, DelBene’s campaign hammered him for his conservative views on social issues. Koster opposes same-sex marriage and believes abortion should be illegal, except to save the life of the mother.

In the final days of the campaign, Koster’s off-the-cuff comments about abortion went viral when he referred to rape as “the rape thing.”

“John Koster just couldn’t help picking away at the scab of abortion and rape and the like,” said Slade Gorton. “Like Republican candidates for Senate in a couple of other states.”

Gorton was one of the architects of the newly redrawn 1st District. He sits on the Washington State Redistricting Commission, which this year gave the state its 10th Congressional seat. During the process, the commission re-jiggered the boundaries of the state’s nine other districts and transformed the 1st District from a Democratic-leaning district to one evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Koster was the lone Republican in the race and the top vote-getter in the primary.

His opponent, DelBene, is a wealthy former business executive from Medina who hews closely to the Democratic establishment party line. Koster is a Christian Republican from the town of Arlington who believes in sharply limiting government.

“The conventional wisdom among Republicans was that Koster was too conservative for the 1st District,” said Chris Vance, former state GOP chair. “I tend to think that’s true.”

The Role Of Money

Republicans agree that a huge disparity in campaign cash played a big role in Koster’s loss.

DelBene put more than $2.8 million of her own money into her campaign. She received three times as many contributions from political action committees as Koster, most notably from labor unions. And she was the beneficiary of more than $1 million in independent expenditures, which largely paid for televisions ads attacking Koster.

And Koster said he suffered from lack of financial support from his own political party.

“For reasons untold,” he wrote in his email to supporters, “neither the National Republican Congressional Committee nor the Washington State Republican Party stepped up to provide us anything more than token support. To be frank, we were on our own.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee provides logistical and financial help to promising Republican candidates around the country.

But according to state GOP Chairman Kirby Wilbur, the NRCC gave Koster's campaign a list of conditions to be met before it invested money, and the campaign refused to cooperate.

At a conference call in early July, Wilbur says Koster’s campaign manager Larry Stickney accused Mike Shields, the political director of the NRCC, of not liking the Koster campaign because “you’re liberal and we’re conservative.”

According to Wilbur, Stickney’s obstinacy was most responsible for the campaign’s failure. “He ran the campaign like it was a legislative race, not a Congressional race,” he said.

Koster’s Third Loss

This is Koster’s third unsuccessful attempt at Congress. He ran twice against Democrat Rick Larsen in the 2nd District.

But in some ways, this may be his toughest loss.

Portions of four counties — King, Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom — make up the sprawling 1st District. Koster is trailing in the vote count in three out of the four counties, including his home county, Snohomish.

But Koster's loss doesn’t mean Republicans can’t win in the 1st District, according to former Senator Slade Gorton. In the governor's race, Republican Rob McKenna has been leading Democrat Jay Inslee in the 1st. “It’ll still be a swing district next election and into the future,” Gorton said. 

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