The Magazine

Time to Hang Up the Tennis Shoes

Dino Rossi takes on Patty Murray.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
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Pacific County, Washington 

Time to Hang Up the Tennis Shoes

Photo Credit: AP, Greg Wahl-Stephens

The Senate race in Washington state is emerging as one of the most-watched electoral battles this year. It pits three-term Democratic incumbent Patty Murray against businessman and former GOP state senator Dino Rossi. In what was once a safe Democratic seat, Rossi is running nearly even.

Still, toppling Murray is a tall order in a state that Barack Obama carried 58 to 40 percent. “In every race [Murray’s] been in, they’ve said this is going to be her toughest race ever,” said Anne Martens, communications director for Washington State Democrats. Stuart Elway, who polls in the Northwest, has found her approval rating above 50 percent only once in 18 years, yet he notes “she’s mowed down three Republican congressmen in successive elections” by a minimum of 8 points.

Indeed, many have underestimated Murray. Known as a “mom in tennis shoes,” she got her start in politics trying to save her kids’ state-funded preschool from budget cuts. She ran for the school board, then board president, then state senator before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1992. Now she ranks fourth in the Democratic leadership, as conference secretary, and is a senior member of both the Appropriations and Budget committees.

It’s a powerful position for bringing home the bacon, as the senator likes to remind Washington voters. “Patty Murray is going to stand with [her constituents], and she’s very proud of that,” said Julie Edwards, communications director for the senator’s campaign. She funneled almost $700 million in stimulus funds to transportation projects in Washington. In fiscal year 2010, she sponsored or cosponsored 190 earmarks worth just under $220 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Murray also sits on the Veterans’ Affairs committee and has sponsored numerous bills that benefit the military in her state. Her first ad consisted solely of endorsements by veterans.  

Murray generally toes the party line. She voted for the stimulus, financial reform, and health care bills. But she supports an estate tax compromise to exempt family businesses and farms below $5 million per individual and $10 million per couple, and she’s undecided on cap and trade. Unlike some Democrats in tight races, she campaigned and fundraised with Barack Obama on primary day last Tuesday. 

Murray is not taking anything for granted. Her campaign spent $3.9 million in July, most of it on ad time. Her strategy is to link her opponent with Bush and to paint him as an extremist. One Democratic consultant familiar with the race expects her to win, but cautioned, “If the [Republican] tidal wave gets big enough, she’s on the edge.”

That’s what Dino Rossi is hoping for, but he also has assets of his own. While he lost two bids for governor, they brought him name recognition—especially the 2004 race, the closest gubernatorial election in U.S. history. Rossi won the initial vote count, then a recount, before losing a second recount by 129 votes to Democrat Christine Gregoire. Four years later, Gregoire beat him for reelection by 53 to 47 percent.

In both those elections, Rossi may have been weighed down by a national ticket unpopular in the state. Local Republicans had to “swim against the tide to get elected” during the Bush era, said Chris Vance, a former chair of the state Republican party. Rossi finished 3 points ahead of Bush in 2004 and 7 points ahead of McCain in 2008.

Rossi is a “very reasonable Republican voice,” said Jonathan Collegio, communications director of American Crossroads, a 527 group backed by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. In a state where church attendance is low, Rossi is stressing pocketbook issues—cutting spending, keeping the Bush tax cuts, repealing the death tax and the financial reform bill, repealing and replacing Obamacare, and blocking cap and trade.

Rossi made his fortune in commercial real estate, then ran for state senate unsuccessfully in 1992 and came back to win in 1996. In 2003, he served as chairman of the Ways & Means Committee in the state senate. In his first campaign ad, he touts his business background and his role as a legislative leader in balancing the state budget without raising taxes to overcome a $3 billion deficit. He contrasts this record with Murray’s. “If all you’re known for is bringing home pork,” he told reporters, “this probably isn’t the year to be saying that.”

To kick off his campaign, Rossi crisscrossed Pacific County in southwest Washington, stopping at a cranberry farm, a wind farm, an oyster farm, a community bank, and a forum with small business owners. Many of them voiced concerns over the estate tax breaking up family businesses; environmental regulations and red tape halting their operations; their difficulty getting loans; and health care costs rising. Rossi has stuck to his economic platform ever since. 

With the primary now behind him, Rossi will seek to win over primary voters who chose one of his competitors, notably the 12 percent who supported the Tea Party-backed candidate, former Washington Redskins tight end Clint Didier. In the state’s open “jungle” primary, 15 candidates competed for the top two slots. Murray got the largest share of the votes, leading Rossi by 13 points. But there was also good news for Republicans: GOP candidates together had 49.7 percent of the vote, Democrats only 48.8 percent, as this magazine went to press.

Victory could hinge on mobilization, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee is hoping the voter enthusiasm disparity this year will put Rossi over the top: A mid-August Survey USA poll found almost twice as many Republicans as Democrats—and four times as many conservatives as liberals—are more enthusiastic about this election than previous ones.

Going into the fall, Murray has the fatter campaign treasury ($3.2 million to Rossi’s $1.8 million) and a lingering edge in most polls. “Rossi still has the steeper hill to climb,” said pollster Elway. 

But it’s a hill, not a mountain. 

Whitney Blake is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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