Dino Rossi is the 10th man. Republicans need to pick up 10 Democratic seats in the midterm election to take control of the Senate. And they probably can’t do it without Rossi, a top-tier challenger in Washington to three-term Democrat Patty Murray. If he wins, Republicans have a realistic chance of gaining a Senate majority.
It won’t be easy. Republicans have been targeting Murray, a conventional liberal, since she first ran as a “mom in tennis shoes” in 1992. She was re-elected by double-digit margins in 1998 and 2004 and shouldn’t be underrated this year. As of March 31, she had $5.9 million in her campaign treasury.
But Murray has never run in a political climate as hostile to Democratic liberals as 2010 appears likely to be. Rossi is the one Republican with statewide name ID, the ability to raise money, and the political skill to mount a competitive race against her. “The good news is the people of the state know me,” he told me last week.
“The reason I got into the race is the country’s in trouble, flat-out trouble,” he says. “There’s so much at stake. It brought me out of political retirement.”
Like most Republicans this year, Rossi, 50, is running on the role of the federal government and economic issues. “You just can’t keep spending” as Democrats have been in Washington, he insists. “We’re going to be France or Greece.” If government spending were sufficient to produce wealth, “there wouldn’t be any poor nations.”
Murray, Rossi says, has voted for all the spending, the bailouts, and government takeovers. “When you add it all up, she has a lot to answer for.”
Rossi, an investor in commercial real estate, trails 42 percent to 40 percent in the latest public poll. But he says he’s ahead in several private surveys. None of her earlier Republican opponents ever pulled ahead of Murray. “My positives are higher [than hers], my negatives are lower,” he says.
In 1996, he was elected to the state senate and served as chairman of the ways and means committee in 2003 when it was confronted by a budget deficit of $3.2 billion. He is credited with putting together a bipartisan coalition that “balanced the budget without raising taxes, and still protected the most vulnerable.”
Rossi ran unsuccessfully for governor twice. In 2004, Rossi was certified the winner over Democrat Christine Gregoire, only to have his victory overturned after Seattle election officials discovered a cache of uncounted ballots. He lost by 133 votes (out of 2.8 million cast).
In 2008, he ran again against Gregoire, losing 53 percent to 47 percent. But he finished far ahead of Republican John McCain, who lost to President Obama in Washington by 58 percent to 40 percent. Obama’s lingering popularity in Washington is “not transferrable” to Murray in 2010, Rossi says.
To face Murray in the general election, Rossi must first defeat four less known candidates in the Republican primary on August 17. He’s a strong favorite to win the primary.
Then he’ll have to deal with a bigger problem: Washington is a “decidedly blue state,” according to the Cook Political Report. The governor, both senators, six of nine House members, and majorities in both chambers of the state legislature – all Democratic.
Still, the Senate contest in Washington could be decisive if Republicans stage a national sweep. To gain a Senate majority, they must hold six open Republican seats and win 10 of the 11 vulnerable Democratic seats. It’s doable, but hard to imagine without a Republican victory by Rossi in Washington.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.