Koster vs. Larsen: Congressional candidates locked in fierce rematch
One other thing these Arlington natives have in common: a healthy dislike for one another.
That's making for a nasty, and getting nastier, duel for a seat in Congress.
Larsen is the Democratic incumbent and Koster the Republican challenger in the 2nd Congressional District, where the winner will serve residents from Mukilteo north to the Canadian border.
They battled for this job in 2000, and Larsen won by a small margin. They expect the rematch to be even closer after Koster pulled off a surprising win in the primary. With much at stake, the older, wiser and well-acquainted combatants are exchanging political punches with greater fury this go-round.
Larsen jabbed first by sending a campaign worker to shadow Koster and videotape his public appearances.
He's continued jabbing with commercials on Social Security and tax policies that Koster claims are full of lies. Larsen also posted a video online splicing together pictures of Koster, quotes of him lauding the tea party movement and images of tea partiers holding racist signs at rallies in other states.
That sent Koster into a full boil. He told supporters recently he doesn't simply want to win Nov. 2, he wants to “pound” the incumbent.
It was heated a decade ago. But not this hot.
“Both men were able to spend a little bit more time talking about themselves and what they wanted to do in 2000,” said Chris Strow, a former Republican state lawmaker from Whidbey Island. “Unfortunately, in this climate, if you want to win a campaign, you need to bite your opponent's head off first.”
* * *
As a politician, Rick Larsen avoids the spotlight and tends to be more wonky than wild.
Then he does something unexpected.
Like July 2006, when he sat down for a faux interview with faux reporter Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report.”
Playing the straight man, Larsen managed to get out he'd never smoked marijuana, opposed building a wall along the U.S.-Canadian border and voted for the first Patriot Act but not its extension, which Colbert termed a “flip-flop.”
Larsen surprised again this July by participating in a forum put on by the Bellingham Tea Party, knowing full well that most of the hundreds of people in the audience wanted him out of office.
He goes to a lot of forums — more than Koster this cycle — because he said voters deserve “open and honest debate about the issues.”
“This is a privilege,” he said of his job. “Voters get to give it and voters get to take it away.”
Larsen, 45, was a lobbyist for the Washington State Dental Association when he won a seat on the Snohomish County Council in 1997.
In 2000, when Republican Rep. Jack Metcalf retired and the congressional seat opened up, he entered the race along with Koster and two others.
Koster won the primary but Larsen rallied in November, finishing with 50.01 percent to Koster's 45.93 percent.
In 2002, Larsen survived a tough re-election challenge from Republican Norma Smith, now a state lawmaker, and he's been re-elected by wide margins three times since.
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Koster often raps Larsen for voting too often with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 98.5 percent this session, says the Washington Post and Congressional Quarterly.
“I don't spend any time at all thinking about what Nancy Pelosi, George Bush or CQ think about my voting record,” Larsen said.
Early on, Larsen walked a centrist path among the then-minority Democrats.
In 2001, he crossed party lines to back the Bush tax cuts. Two years later, he opposed additional tax cuts. “In 2001, the budget had a surplus of $128 billion, and, in my view, tax relief at that time was appropriate,” he said.
Two years later, the budget had a deficit and the Republican majority had tossed out the pay-as-you-go law “so there was no control on spending,” he said. “I thought it best to stop digging the hole these actions put us in, but Republicans controlled the shovel.”
Today, despite a lake of red ink in the budget, he wants to make every tax cut permanent except the one for those earning $250,000 a year or more.
On the campaign trail, Larsen touts what he's delivered to the district, such as establishing the Wild Sky Wilderness near Index and enacting tougher pipeline safety rules.
He speaks of helping avert closure of Naval Air Station Whidbey, opening a health clinic for veterans and finding funds for road projects throughout the district.
Most of the heat directed at him is for his votes since Barack Obama became president.
He backed the federal health care law, the stimulus package, bailouts for banks, insurers and car companies, and regulatory reform of Wall Street financiers.
Those decisions are generating a tide of discontent that Republicans hope will lift them into control of Congress.
Larsen isn't convinced voters will overlook what he's done for the district.
“There's a national narrative that my opponent wants to ride,” he said. “He's going to find that surfboard will probably run out of wave because of all the local work I've been doing.”
* * *
This time a year ago, you would have heard John Koster urging voters in east Snohomish County to give him a third term on the County Council.
Yet even before he had been certified the winner, he was being courted to run for Congress. There was a “draft Koster” effort online, and state Republican Party leaders pursued him in December with a poll they hoped would convince him he could win.
On Jan. 13, two weeks into his new council term, Koster entered the race with a vow to give voters an ideological choice between his conservative approach or Larsen's “progressive socialist agenda.”
Koster, 59, is campaigning with the fervor of his first election in 1994 when he defeated Democrat Rep. Hans Dunshee for a seat in the Legislature.
The former dairy farmer served three terms in which his signature legislation may be the 1996 “Two Strikes You're Out” law locking up violent sex offenders for life.
In 2001, months after losing the congressional campaign to Larsen, Koster won a seat on the County Council. He's been re-elected twice.
* * *
When Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele decided to hold a rally in Washington to fire up the GOP troops, he could have gone anywhere and been with anyone.
He chose Arlington and John Koster.
Steele's appearance at the Oct. 8 event provided a visual attaboy to Koster who won the primary and is staying even with Larsen in the polls.
Koster, who was in a similar position in 2000, said the climate is different and he's better prepared.
This time around, there's a stronger breeze of change blowing at his back. Voters are focused on the economy and fiscal conservatism, issues central to his message.
He's backed by Sarah Palin and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, the only Republican candidate in the state with support from both.
And campaigning, he's done a masterful job keeping focused on what he terms the reckless fiscal policies and socialist agenda of the Democratic majority.
“In our lifetime, I don't think we'll face another election as important as this one,” he said at the rally with Steele. “We are here to reject the policies of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. We've got to stop these guys and stop them now.”
Koster would have voted against every major Democratic initiative undertaken in the last two years and, if elected, wants to repeal the health care and financial reform laws.
“I never thought I'd see government-owned automobile companies or see government set the course for the takeover of our health care system,” he said.
The nation would be no worse without the $800 billion federal stimulus package because it created no jobs and deepened the nation's debt, he said.
As a member of the County Council, he voted to accept and spend stimulus money on county projects. Each one was “in a queue” to be carried out and the federal money allowed the county to act sooner, he explained.
“(The money) didn't create jobs” in the county, he said.
Koster's fixes for the economy include passing a balanced budget amendment, easing regulations on businesses and banning earmarks. And the full package of tax cuts must be made permanent, he said.
Federal spending must be slashed and he suggested, as a start, a freeze on hiring, reduction of non-military discretionary spending to 2008 levels and a 10 percent across-the-board cut in spending in every agency save the Pentagon.
“We've got to stop spending money we don't have,” he said. “There are a lot of ways we can do it. There is going to be some pain.”
One thing John Koster is avoiding this election is a conversation with voters on social issues.
Koster, if the chance arose, would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, ban assisted suicide nationwide and oppose an Equal Rights Amendment, according to answers he supplied the Republican National Coalition for Life.
And he signed a pledge to consider impeachment if Obama fails to adequately secure the border against the flow of illegal immigrants.
While those views have yet to surface in the heat of the campaign, they may in the final days as they did in 2000.
He's not hiding from these views. He's just not trumpeting them.
“Those don't define me any more than it defines the man in the moon,” he said in a July interview.
* * *
To date, Larsen has produced two commercials attacking Koster positions and an online video associating him with extremists in the tea party movement. Koster says the ads are all lies and the video a cheap shot.
One commercial claims Koster backs privatizing Social Security — a damning charge in a district full of senior voters. It contains a clip of the Republican talking up individual retirement accounts for beneficiaries.
Koster said he opposes privatizing. The idea of IRAs had some merit 10 years ago, but not now. “Both my mother-in-law and step-mom depend on Social Security. Take it away? Are you kidding?” he said.
Then Larsen hit in August with the online video editing together pictures of people toting racist signs at tea party rallies in other states with images of Koster praising the political involvement of tea partiers in the district.
The video includes snapshots of a man holding a Confederate flag standing among Koster supporters at a July 4 parade in Everett.
“For this kind of trash to surface this early in the campaign, one has to wonder just how deep Rick Larsen will sink to retain power,” Koster said in August.
This week, they're at it again.
Larsen has a new TV ad asserting Koster supports tax policies that reward companies for creating jobs in other countries.
“Rick Larsen knows this is a bald-faced lie,” Koster said.
The scuffle is over Koster signing the Americans for Tax Reform pledge to not raise taxes. Democrats contend that means backing a tax break corporations receive on profits from their overseas operations. They voted to eliminate it this summer.
“If John Koster doesn't understand the implications of the pledge he signs, then what can we trust him to understand?” Larsen asked.
* * *
Reid Wilson, editor-in-chief of The Hotline, a daily online report on American politics, isn't surprised Rick Larsen swung first.
Democratic incumbents across the country are going negative to keep their seats, he said. They want to voters to see the election not as a referendum on their party's policies but a choice between someone who may be an unpopular Democratic incumbent and someone who is an unacceptable Republican alternative.
“That's really the only way Democrats can save themselves this year,” he said.
“Larsen and his allies are going to try and paint Koster as out of touch and out of step with the district,” he said. “If voters head to the polls thinking about Rick Larsen, he's in trouble. If they vote thinking about John Koster the too-conservative politician, Larsen will be just fine.”
Details: 58 years old; Republican; resides in Arlington; currently a Snohomish County councilman and dairy farmer
Education: Associate degree from Everett Community College
In his own words: “I think our country is headed in the wrong direction. I think the policies of this (Obama) administration and what Rick (Larsen) has voted for has done more to stymie the economy than stimulate it. I think this election is a narrow window of opportunity to get this country back on track.”
Details: 45 years old; Democrat; resides in Everett; currently a congressman
Education: Master's degree in public administration from University of Minnesota, bachelor of arts in political science from Pacific Lutheran University.
In his own words: “This race is a choice between going forward and trying to turn the economy around or going backwards on a path that got us this bad economy in the first place. I represent going forward.”
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen and challenger John Koster will debate live at 7 p.m. Thursday on KCTS, Channel 9.
Races drawing national interest
With control of the House of Representatives at stake, three congressional races in Washington are drawing attention from the national political parties and interest groups.
In the 2nd District, Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen's close contest with Republican challenger John Koster brought the chairman of the national Republican Party to Arlington.
In the 3rd District, Democrat Denny Heck and Republican Jaime Herrera are engaged in a fierce duel to succeed the retiring Democratic Rep. Brian Baird. Both parties are investing heavily to capture this rare open seat.
In the 8th District, Republican Rep. Dave Reichert's road to re-election is getting bumpier; his well-funded foe Democrat Suzan Del Bene has climbed in recent polls.
Here's what the two candidates have raised and spent in this election through July 28:
• Raised: $1.16 million
• Spent: $516,594
• Cash on hand: $864,344
• Raised: $424,380
• Spent: $297,311
• Cash on hand: $127,069
For more information on the campaign spending, go to http://tinyurl.com/CandidateSpending.
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