By this time two years ago, a pack of Democrats was already competing to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert in Washington's 8th Congressional District, in an early sign of partisan fervor for the 2018 midterm elections that flipped control of the House of Representatives.
Reichert bowed out of that race, leading to the election of Kim Schrier, an Issaquah pediatrician who became the first Democrat to represent the historically Republican district, defeating former state Sen. Dino Rossi in the most expensive House race in state history.
With the 2020 election season rapidly approaching — and a shot at reclaiming the seat — Republicans have yet to field a formidable challenger against Schrier.
The GOP candidate deficit extends to other marquee 2020 races, evidence of the challenges facing the party in a state where President Donald Trump's deep unpopularity is expected to be a drag down the ballot. The GOP has not produced a top-tier candidate for governor, despite arguing that Gov. Jay Inslee is vulnerable in his bid for a third term. And no Republican so far is running for attorney general against Democrat Bob Ferguson.
That picture could change, depending in large part on Reichert.
The former seven-term congressman from Auburn "is considering" a return to politics with a challenge of Inslee for governor in 2020, said state Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich, adding "he's certainly not running at this point." Whether or not Reichert runs, he said "voters deserve an alternative — a viable alternative."
Reichert, who has been working for the lobbying firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs since January, could not be reached for comment. GOP sources say he broached the idea of running for governor a couple of weeks ago at a barbecue with longtime political associates. The talk intensified last week, but it remains unclear whether Reichert will take the plunge.
He has had a history of stoking speculation about bids for governor and the U.S. Senate, only to back away. In 2015, he decided against challenging Inslee's bid for a second term the next year after viewing results of a poll.
The state GOP has the longest gubernatorial election losing streak in the nation. Barring a shift in their candidate field — or the national political climate — they are likely in for another rough year, some Republicans acknowledge.
King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn said last week Republicans are "still licking their wounds from the midterm beat-downs," which saw Democrats take the U.S. House and expand their majorities in the Washington state Legislature.
"There is very little energy right now for candidates," said Dunn, a Republican, adding "that may change."
Dunn previously considered running for the 8th Congressional District seat held for more than a decade by his mother, the late U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn. But he's taking a pass. "I am 100% out," he said.
As for her reelection bid, Schrier said she's not sensing enthusiasm among Republicans comparable to what Democrats were feeling two years ago. "There was a real passion and panic about the direction of our country. I don't think that the Republicans are feeling that same drive," she said.
Schrier's win was powered by big margins in King County suburban cities, including Issaquah, Sammamish and Auburn, overwhelming the rural, Republican-leaning swaths of the district, which runs across the Cascade Mountains to include Kittitas and Chelan counties.
Suburban support for Republicans, which had been declining for years, reached a nadir in 2018, leading to Schrier's win and to the defeat of the few remaining GOP state legislators representing districts in King County. About one-third of the state's 4 million voters reside in King County, which has been trending increasingly Democratic for decades.
With Reichert on the fence in the governor's race, the highest-profile Republican candidate for that spot so far is state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, who announced his run at Seattle City Hall, referring to the seat of government in the state's largest city as the "belly of the beast."
Heimlich said more candidates could be in the works, and said he's "optimistic about the governor's race in particular because a third term is difficult." He said Inslee's recently ended presidential campaign and its associated taxpayer costs "sends a message to voters about where his priorities lie."
But state Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski said Republicans will have a hard time making the case against Inslee, citing rankings that show Washington as a top place to do business in the nation and a recent upgrade by Moody's of the state's credit rating. Inslee also has signed into law a suite of progressive legislation such as a clean-power mandate and paid family leave.
"I think it's a very difficult record to run against and he is a very skilled elected official," said Podlodowski.
Mike Vaska, an attorney and chairman of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, said he and other GOP moderates have been wrestling with how to find state candidates who can attract voters despite Trump's presence at the top of the ticket.
Vaska said he has been asked to run for attorney general but has not made any decisions. He previously ran unsuccessfully for the position in 2004.
He said there arguably ought to be "a tail wind" for Republicans given frustrations on issues such as the homelessness crisis and management problems at some state agencies.
"If you took the national equation out, this could be a change election in Washington," Vaska said. "Part of our mission is to figure out how to sharpen and distinguish the Northwest brand of Republican from the national brand."