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For Netroots Candidate Darcy Burner, Third Time's Not the Charm?

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, August 7 2012

When primary voters in Washington's 1st Congressional District go to the polls today, one of the names on the ballot might be more familiar to them than others. That would be Darcy Burner, a netroots favorite who's running along with six other Democrats to succeed former Rep. Jay Inslee, who retired from the seat earlier this year to run for Governor.

[Update Wednesday:] Burner lost, conceding to Susan DelBene in a race in which Burner was badly outspent by the other leading Democrat. DelBene, progressive blogger Matt Stoller told us before election night, injected the race with $1.9 million of her own money before launching an ad blitz that observers say contributed to her victory.

This is the third time that the 41-year-old former Microsoft executive and self-described geek is running for a House seat. A long-time Democratic activist and member of the DailyKos community, Burner lost a close race for Washington's 8th District against conservative Dave Reichert in 2006, and lost a 2008 challenge to him as well. This time, she's running for the newly redistricted 1st District, which runs from the Democratic suburbs of Redmond to more conservative rural areas up to the border with Canada. Burner and the six other Democratic candidates, including two who withdrew prior to the primary, are seven of ten running in an open primary that will send the top two vote-getters to the general election. (A Republican, James Watkins, withdrew ahead of the primary as well.)

Last week, Ted Cruz rode a wave of Tea Party anti-establishment energy to win the Texas Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Burner's election is an opportunity for progressives to elect someone with a similar level of ideological purity, someone who was a keynote speaker at the popular Netroots Nation conference and received endorsements from the likes of MoveOn.org, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas and Alan Grayson. Up until now, it seemed as if Burner was going to come out on top in the race between the Democrats — but an ad blitz from her main Democratic rival Suzan DelBene and the vagaries of the immediate pre-primary campaign seemed to be edging her out yet again headed into Tuesday. DelBene is a former Microsoft executive who has a similar agenda as Burner's, but who has less of a public presence.

"We're talking about somebody who can step into Congress and can organize like nobody I've ever met," Moulitsas said at a June reception in Kirkland, Washington. "This is the one race in the entire country right now, where I can look at a candidate, and I can say: she is going to give us more than one vote, she is going to be able to corral people, bring them together, and build the movement that not only moves the party forward, but the country forward."

So far this cycle, Daily Kos has raised $56,000 for Burner from 5,800 donations, said its campaign director, Chris Bowers. Meanwhile, Blue America, a progressive political action fund, has raised about $13,600 for Burner this election cycle, according to treasurer Howie Klein. About two-thirds of Blue America's contributors are progressive women. Bowers said that Daily Kos also encouraged members of its community who are also members of MoveOn to vote to endorse Burner.

"She's always been part of our community," Bowers said in an interview. "During her time in Washington, D.C., she was still participating in the community at that time in terms of writing, and in terms of connecting members of the progressive Netroots to progressive members of Congress, and building inside-outside alliances, and helping to give our movement real power."

It seems there's more support outside Burner's district than inside of it. Burner has been drastically outraised in terms of money by DelBene, campaign finance filings compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show, and as of June election filings, more of Burner's money was coming from out of state donors than from in state.

It's unclear if the kind of ground-game volunteers that powered Cruz's victory will turn out for Burner. She has a pretty similar agenda to other Democrats, but she is more outspoken. The Seattle Times, for instance, ran a story in March about how local Democrats scolded Burner for calling President Obama a Republican on Twitter because of compromises he had to make in some of his policies. And a lot of the focus of her campaign has been on national policies and politics rather than the local economy and job creation, said Josh Feit, editor of the Washington State political blog Publicola.

Feit says that he hasn't seen her temper her rhetoric, and her focus on ending the war in Afghanistan during the race, although he cautions that he's only seen her debate the other candidates during events sponsored by Democrats, and that he hasn't tracked her on the campaign trail.

Burner receives praise from Blue America's Klein for being "real," and "authentic." Netroots Nation's Executive Director calls her the "quintessential netroots candidate."

Yet for all their support, Feit says that Burner isn't a good fit for her district. Like other political observers, he notes that in the general election she's going to have to appeal to more conservative voters. At the same time, her rival DelBene courted the local Democratic community by staying in state. After her last unsuccessful bid for a house seat, she worked as the director for the Washington State Department of Revenue. During this election cycle, she's been endorsed by Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire.

"My sense is that you do have to have a centrist, or moderate message to be successful there heading into the election," Feit said.