WASHINGTON -- Within days after Washington Rep. Dave Reichert joined 177 other House Republicans in voting against a massive stimulus package, the Democratic hit machine cranked up.
Reichert was one of a dozen seemingly vulnerable Republicans from marginal districts targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Democrats launched a "major grassroots campaign" against Reichert and the others using radio ads, phone calls, e-mails and text messages.
"We will hold accountable those Republicans who continue to vote against President Obama's economic recovery plan for the American people," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Reichert has seen it before. And it hasn't worked.
But this time, Reichert voted against a $787 billion economic recovery plan backed by a president with near 70 percent approval ratings at a time when a recession is tightening its grip on Washington state. Reichert does not second-guess his vote, but he has sought to distance himself from Republicans, like radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who hope Obama fails.
"I don't listen to Rush Limbaugh," Reichert said in an interview. "I don't think he speaks for the (Republican) party. He doesn't speak for me. I certainly hope the president doesn't fail. If he does, America fails."
Democrats say that in opposing the bill, Reichert may finally have gone too far. He just parrots the GOP attack line, his vote will come back to haunt him and despite his efforts to paint himself as a centrist, he's just a standard-issue conservative Republican, they say.
"He is completely out of step with his district," said Jennifer Crider, a Democratic spokeswoman. "He says one thing in Washington state and does another in Washington, D.C."
After narrowly winning his first two elections, Reichert bucked the Democratic tide in 2008 and won by more than 5 percentage points. No one is betting that makes him an entrenched incumbent. Privately, Democrats say his 2008 opponent didn't run a good race. But they also say 2008 may have been their best chance to unseat him, unless his vote on the stimulus backfires.
Reichert is habitually walking a political tightrope without much of a safety net. So far, he has been successful in attracting moderate Republicans, independents and scattered Democrats by stylizing himself as a pro-business, pro-tax cut, pro-trade centrist with a touch of environmentalism and concern about global warming and an ability to sidestep the thorny issues of social conservatives.
Though he voted against the stimulus bill, he was among the 16 Republicans who supported a $410 billion omnibus spending bill.
"I see myself as a fly in the ointment," Reichert said. "I represent the people of the 8th Congressional District. I don't represent the Republican Party."
The 8th Congressional District stretches from the wealthy suburbs east of Lake Washington to middle-class neighborhoods of eastern King and Pierce counties to the flanks of Mount Rainier. It has always been represented by Republicans similar in tone to Reichert.
Even so, his district has become increasingly Democratic. Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore won the district by 2 percentage points in 2000 and John Kerry won it by 3 percentage points in 2004. Barack Obama won it last year by 15 percentage points.
For now, Reichert said he has no plans to run for the Senate against incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in 2010.
"I like what I am doing," he said.
Reichert doesn't rule out a Senate bid and acknowledges there has been a certain buzz in political circles in the state about his running. Even his barber has asked him about it, he said.
There has been no effort by national Republicans to recruit him and he has not talked with Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, Reichert said.
Reichert has become increasingly visible on talk radio in Washington state. Over the past few weeks, he has also appeared on Fox Business News and CSPAN's National Journal, been profiled in the Boston Globe and published opinion pieces in the Washington Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
After years of listening and asking questions, Reichert said he's ready to speak out.
"It's time to be more vocal," Reichert said.
Reichert frequently refers back to his seven years as King County sheriff. His pursuit and capture of the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgeway, became the basis for a book and a made-for-television movie. Reichert said he is hard to label, though many have tried. He shies away from using the term "maverick."
"Sheriffs have always been thought of as independent, able to see through the woods and the forests," he said.
He's also a little unconventional. James Brown sometimes blares from his office speakers. He beat a high school student at arm-wrestling. He quotes from David McCullough's biography of John Adams. And, he's been known to answer the phones in his office and talk with those wanting to express their opinions, including the weirdos.
"I can handle weirdos," Reichert said. "I was once stabbed by a mentally ill guy."
Reichert is convinced Democrats would come after him whatever he did, and he vigorously defends his opposition to the stimulus bill.
Sitting forward in his chair, emphasizing each point with his hands, Reichert said the bill didn't include enough tax breaks, especially for small businesses, allowed for the creation of board that could end up "rationing" health care, made no mention of trade policy and failed to set up standards for implementing medical electronic record keeping.
Just as Republicans made a mistake by rushing into the Iraq War, he said, Democrats were making a mistake by rushing into an economic recovery plan.
If the recovery plans works, Reichert said he will go back to his district and explain that "I don't have all the answers. I do what I can."
As for his vote for the massive omnibus spending bill currently bottled up in the Senate, Reichert said $390 billion of the $410 billion in funding was proposed by former President Bush and in the depths of an economic crisis it was important to keep the government functioning. He was not among those who included $7.7 billion in special projects in the bill.
Over the years, Reichert has pretty much voted the party line. In 2007, he voted with Republican leaders almost three-fourths of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly. As Bush's popularity dropped, Reichert's support for legislation backed by the White House fell from 86 percent in 2005 to 46 percent in 2007.
Political analysts in Washington, D.C., aren't convinced Reichert's opposition to the stimulus bill will determine whether he wins in 2010.
"If the economy collapses he can say he was right," said Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report. "If it improves, there are always ways to finesse it."
Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report points to Reichert's victory in 2008 during a strong Democratic year.
"Any Republicans left standing after the last several elections in a marginal district," Wasserman said, "has to have pretty good cross-party appeal."