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Seriously? 

If ever Democrats thought they had a chance to return Eastern Washington to the azure days of Tom Foley, it was in 2006. A blue wave of anti-Republican sentiment was (rightly) predicted to wash across the country, and the Dems had a perfect candidate for the 5th Congressional District, a broad swath from Winthrop to Walla Walla that had been in Republican hands since Foley's ouster in 1994. Peter Goldmark, the Dems' great hope, was an Okanogan rancher with a Ph.D. and a family history in politics -- a red-state kind of guy who cared for the environment, spoke with passion, rode horses and sat on the board of regents at WSU.

None of that mattered at the ballot box, as freshman Rep. Cathy McMorris routed him by a margin of nearly 13 percent.

Call it resignation or cockeyed optimism, but two years later, Democrats are taking the opposite tack with their candidate for the 5th District. In February, the party nominated Mark Mays -- a relatively unknown Spokane psychologist with a limited background in politics and no experience in public office -- to face McMorris (now McMorris Rodgers) and return the district to Democrats.

Huh?

Mays, 60, is an Air Force vet and a staff psychologist at Sacred Heart Medical Center, with a law degree on top of his psychology doctorate. (He has lectured at Gonzaga's School of Law for several years, according to one bio.) The father of five, who speaks softly and with a lilting voice, was also one of the minds behind the BRIGHT initiative, a proposal to help local students pay for college with the caveat that the students remain in Spokane for three years after graduation. The idea was the subject of an Inlander cover story last May.

But for all his varied experience, Mays' political resume is decidedly short. He chaired Goldmark's 2006 campaign, but he has never held political office himself.

"What makes him such a great candidate is he's not Cathy McMorris," says Kristin & egrave; Reeves, chair of the Spokane County Democrats. "I think he's capable of making up his own mind on what's in the best interests of [the district]. That's something we haven't had from our current legislator." She adds, "He's well-educated, he's well-spoken, he brings a sense of responsibility and empowerment back to the legislature and to Eastern Washington. He kind of has that Tom Foley-esque feel to him."

Still, it's hard to say that Democrats are banking on Mays. As of the last filing date with the Federal Election Commission, McMorris Rodgers had out-raised Mays 25 to 1, with the incumbent congresswoman raking in almost $1.1 million to Mays' paltry $44,000.

Help doesn't appear to be on the way. The Website for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (which bought airtime for Goldmark late in the 2006 campaign) displays the races it's targeting with financial support from region to region. Their map of the Northwest registers the race between Dave Reichert and Darcy Burner in Washington's 8th District, and the contest between Bill Sali and Walt Minnick in Idaho, but there's no mention of the McMorris Rodgers-Mays contest.

"What I was gathering is there are other races that are bigger fish to fry, and nobody really views this race as near the top," says Inlander Editor and Publisher Ted S. McGregor Jr., who was urged to run for the position by Democratic activists just weeks before Mays was nominated. "[Parties] only have so many dollars and [they] have to pick X number of races. Basically, you're going to be on your own. At some point, you might get some money but you shouldn't count on it." McGregor says he talked to friends, local politicians and current congressional representatives before deciding to decline.

"It was understood that Darcy Burner's race would be the top priority," says state Sen. Chris Marr, who was also asked to run on the Democratic ticket. Marr, a first-term senator from Spokane's 6th Legislative District, took a dim view of the possibility. After all, he says, Don Barbieri had failed to secure the open seat in 2004 and Goldmark was unable to beat the freshman McMorris Rodgers in 2006. "I can't make the argument that neither Barbieri nor Goldmark were qualified or visible or didn't have well-financed campaigns," he says. "That sent a message to [political fundraisers] that we probably weren't a high priority."

Besides, he says, the work didn't exactly appeal to him. "[I] would be serving as a Democrat in a swing district," he says. "The nature of the beast is you spend half your time in a phone room in Washington, D.C., dialing for dollars. For me, that's not the most rewarding part of being elected."

Marr says he knew Democrats were getting desperate for a candidate when they came to him last December. "Any time you're talking about the end of the year prior to a race like that, it's fairly late. I'd been fairly consistent in indicating I was focused on the job I have right now," he says. Ultimately, he notes that his decision to decline the offer came down to his work in Olympia, the nature of the job in D.C. and "obviously the odds of winning."

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & D & lt;/span & espite the disparity in fundraising, the state and national parties' relative disregard for the local race, and the voting record in the 5th District, Mays seems remarkably optimistic.

"Let's be honest about it," says Mays. "I knew the DCCC wasn't going to be a lot of help. I knew that the rest [of the money] would need to come from me calling and [from] local people. I knew it would be difficult. I knew the money would not be easy to come by. I knew what I was getting into."

Mays notes that his campaign is on its way to achieving the modest $250,000 goal it had set. Meanwhile, he's been busily traveling across the district, staging events four nights a week, spreading his name and putting the screws to McMorris Rodgers, who he portrays as a "lockstep, go-along-with Republican" in the Bush mold. (Indeed, a video circulating on the Internet shows her shaking the president's hand after this year's State of the Union speech and telling him, "You make me proud to be an American.")

"She has totally supported mistaken approaches to the economy, to health care, to the environment, to worker's rights. It hasn't worked," he says. "We're going toward the waterfall and she's rowing harder."

Mays says he believes McMorris Rodgers will try to avoid scheduled debates with him in order to avoid criticism of her voting history. "Why in the world would [she] want to debate someone with the record she has?" he asks, citing votes against anti-discrimination legislation, an emergency extension of unemployment benefits and the raising of the federal minimum wage. He even accuses her of using taxpayer money to mail campaign propaganda disguised as constituent newsletters.

In office, he says he'll focus on health care challenges, the collapsing economy and lesser, often overlooked issues like civil liberties and funding for the arts.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & cMorris Rodgers, for her part, seems unconcerned with Mays' campaign. "Peter Goldmark proved to be a good fund-raiser. [But] Peter Goldmark had at least run for school board," she says, pointing to Mays' short political experience. "Mark Mays has been around. He served for Goldmark and Foley. [But] sometimes people make that transition to candidate better than other times. I'm not sure Mark has quite found his stride yet."

McMorris Rodgers says she's focused on running a positive campaign and continuing to work hard for her constituents in Eastern Washington. She cites her membership on three committees (Armed Services, Natural Resources, and Education and Labor) and her commitment to provide rural health care, crack down on online sexual predators, protect and grow Fairchild Air Force Base and make alternative energy solutions being developed in the 5th District part of the national solution for energy independence. "I've proven myself to be effective," she says.

But is she unbeatable?

"Well, you can never take it for granted," she says of her fund-raising edge and her 53 percent vote in the August primary.

But Democrats may indeed be taking the district's reddish hue as a given. "For the foreseeable future, the odds of the 5th Congressional District going to Democrats are very rare," says Marr. "It would take a confluence of a number of factors. It starts with the candidate who can reach across and obtain support from the business or ag community. It would take a large commitment of funds from the Democratic Committee. That's very difficult. Beyond that, it's going to take some changes of the demographics within the 5th District, along the lines of how the 6th District changed, with more in-migration and the growth of the Spokane metropolitan area. I think it's a big hill."

Mays seems unbothered by uphill battles. "I have five kids," he says. "I'm worried about the world we're leaving them. And I wanted to be able to look at them and say, 'I did everything I could.' We're doing everything we can. We'll see what happens."

GOLDMARK: WHERE IS HE NOW?

Peter Goldmark has been downed, but he's not out. Two years after the rancher, geneticist and pilot from Okanogan became state Democrats' great hope for winning back the 5th Congressional District only to lose to McMorris, Goldmark is back on the stump, with his eyes on becoming the state's next commissioner of public lands. This time, he faces Doug Sutherland, the two-term incumbent Republican and former Pierce County executive.

It's an obscure position (the commissioner is responsible for managing the state's five million acres of forests, shores, ranges and tidal lands), but it's become one of the most closely watched -- and contested -- races on the fall ballot. In the August primary, Sutherland only barely squeaked by Goldmark, beating him 51.1 to 48.9 percent. The funding race is equally tight. As of the most recent report to the state's Public Disclosure Commission, Goldmark (who proved to be a masterful fund-raiser in the 2006 election) had pulled in $627,000 to Sutherland's $502,000.

Even for a down-ticket race, the campaign has been marked by some serious (mostly one-sided) mud-slinging. Almost literally.

Goldmark has posted a video to his Website squarely placing the blame for a series of devastating mudslides in Lewis County last December on Sutherland's shoulders, saying he failed to enforce existing logging rules. He's also pointed out that Sutherland has received about half a million dollars from a political action committee supported by timber giant Weyerhaeuser. In the meantime, he's letting bloggers bring up that sexual harassment complaint from back in 2005 (in which a woman claims that Sutherland rubbed her back while making inappropriate comments at an agency meeting).

The mud could be working. Talking heads at online Northwest political journal Crosscut are calling the race for Goldmark, saying, "The race will be a barometer of the greenward tilting of the Evergreen State."

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