Washington state has become a national battleground since 1994, when it threw out five Democratic House members - including Speaker Tom Foley - and elected a total of six new Republican congressmen. Most of them had campaigned against the Clinton administration's spotted owl protection plan for the Northwest and the Endangered Species Act, instead backing the wise-use movement and property rights groups.
Three of these freshmen hailed from largely suburban districts that had previously chosen Democrats: Rick White, who represents Seattle's northern suburbs; Randy Tate, who serves the state's newest congressional district; and Linda Smith from southwestern Washington, where the largest city, Vancouver, is a growing bedroom community for Portland.
These freshmen were true to their campaign promises: They became loyal troops in Speaker Newt Gingrich's revolution to roll back health, safety and environmental laws.
Back in Seattle, the defeated environmentalists mobilized. The day after the election, Bill Arthur, director of the Sierra Club's Northwest office, wrote a memo to his colleagues outlining a strategy to unseat the suburban freshmen. For most of last year, they rebuilt their grassroots, aired attack ads against White and Tate on issues like the so-called "Dirty Water Bill" and staged demonstrations against the timber salvage rider. At the bottom of their effort was the reasoning that the ideological extremism of the Washington freshmen Republicans didn't jibe with the moderate environmentalism of their suburban constituents. Most of the freshmen had won office by margins of only a few thousand votes.
"We're out in the suburbs and cul-de-sacs of America talking to people" and raising the awareness of environmental issues instead of trying to lobby an anti-environmental Congress, Arthur says.
The efforts of the environmentalists - and the records of the incumbents - yielded quick results. The results of the Sept. 17 Washington primary election - in which three incumbents received less than 50 percent of their party's vote - show there is a chance to elect a pro-environment slate of up to six Washington state Democrats to Congress, according to Arthur.
Tate is under the most intense attack from environmentalists. His near-zero voting record and vulnerability to defeat earned him a spot on the League of Conservation Voters' Dirty Dozen list. And in the primary, Tate was the only incumbent who was outpolled by his Democratic challenger, State Sen. Adam Smith.
A surprising outcome of the primaries was a lower-than-expected 52 percent showing by Rep. Linda Smith, who had been considered too popular for a concerted defeat effort. In light of her poor showing, Arthur plans to put additional resources into defeating her in southwestern Washington's 3rd Congressional District.
Her Democratic challenger, Brian Baird, a psychology professor and political newcomer who drew 48 percent of the primary vote, focused much of his campaign on restoring endangered salmon and protecting old-growth forests.
At first, it wasn't easy for activists to gain ground in suburbia. Its residents were disturbed by environmental activists' failure to acknowledge the country's positive gains in environmental protection. "They don't believe that the world is perfect, but they believe we've made progress, (that) the air and water are cleaner than they were a quarter of a century ago," Arthur said.
The greens also had trouble hammering home their message that Congress was willfully eroding environmental protection, because voters simply couldn't believe that it would. But if told their members of Congress were catering to special interests who gave them big campaign contributions, the suburbanites found it believable.
So activists re-packaged their campaign in a pro-family light. Environmental groups ran a 60-second radio ad in the Puget Sound area that focused on children worrying about the air, water and trees. In this "mouths of babes' spot, "America the Beautiful" played in the background as the narrator said, "They are trusting us to take care of America."
Tony Williams, chief of staff to Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who has been helping several of the freshmen with their re-election campaigns, said the suburban vote will be decisive in some races. Tate in particular is in trouble, Williams agreed. "That race is going to be door-to-door," and may be determined by as few as 8,000 politically independent households, he said.
But Williams said Republicans have proven they can win big in suburban areas. Vancouver, in Linda Smith's district, has grown fast and isn't deeply tied to one party. But in his 1994 re-election bid, Gorton, a conservative critic of environmental laws, captured 60 percent of the vote in Clark County, which includes Vancouver.
All six House freshmen from Washington are vulnerable and will have close contests, Arthur predicted. "Clearly there is a wind blowing out there; it's just hard to tell how hard it's blowing until November," he said.
* Larry Swisher
Larry Swisher writes from Washington, D.C.
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