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Musical Chairs in WA Politics: Baird to Establish Residency in Inslee’s District

Recent developments have set the fires of speculation about Washington State’s 2012 gubernatorial race ablaze. Although not official, current governor Chris Gregoire’s rumored choice not to run for a third term has focused attention to Rep. Jay Inslee (WA-1) as the likely Democratic contender for the open seat. A decision by Inslee to vie for the governor’s office would leave a comfortable Democratic district vulnerable to a Republican challenger, but one Washington Democratic politician could be adopting the Bret Favre approach to retirement in order to help his party protect a key House seat.

When Congresswoman-elect Jaime Herrera (R, WA-3) is sworn into the 112th Congress this January she will fill the seat left open by outgoing Rep. Brian Baird’s decision not to run for re-election. In the meantime, Baird will affect a change in his own scenery. Yesterday, the Tacoma News Tribune reported that Baird will be moving to a new home deep in the heart of Inslee’s First Congressional District:

Baird is moving to Edmonds, in the 1st Congressional District north and east of Lake Washington currently represented by Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee. If Inslee were to run for governor in 2012, as many expect, the congressional seat would be open.

The move makes good sense for Baird, good sense for Democrats, and should stimulate talk among Republicans who may have already hung a bull’s-eye on the First. Without a strong Democratic candidate to replace Inslee should he run for governor, Democrats will effectively be going all-in, risking not only a loss by Inslee to Washington’s current attorney general and presumptive Republican candidate Rob McKenna, but also the loss of the First District in the shuffle. Baird’s move mitigates some of the risk by establishing a resident pseudo-incumbent as a scarecrow to give the GOP a moment’s pause, but it is likely a move planned well in advance based on inside knowledge about Democratic weakness in the district should it be abandoned by the incumbent.

While the GOP “wave” in Washington State failed to unseat any Democratic congressmen (yes, all of supposedly progressive Washington’s Democratic House delegation are male), the Third District race may have given us a peek at the quantitative advantage of incumbency. The average dip in vote share among the state’s Democrats – save for Rep. Jim McDermott (WA-7) – was 10 points since highs in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 elections, but Denny Heck’s losing effort to keep the Third finished 17 points below the baseline set by Baird in 2008.

It’s math of the most unscientific and fuzzy sort, for sure, but if the benefit of incumbency for Democrats in Washington State does amount to something in the vicinity of seven points on Election Day the implications of Inslee running for governor are clear. After all, Inslee gained re-election this year by a margin of just over seven points. In a dream “what if” scenario for Republicans, if Inslee had chosen to vacate his seat this term to run for governor unburdened by any responsibilities to his constituents, perhaps the GOP would be swearing in two new members from the Evergreen State.

Theoretical physics aside, short of a breakthrough in human cloning, in 2012 Democrats will need the next best thing to incumbency, a carpetbagger with a significant political resume and an unblemished win-loss record. Baird certainly fits the bill and will ease into the First as a potential candidate with decent name recognition, sizable political resources, and a campaign fund of nearly $450,000.

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[Cross-posted by author from Red County.]

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