Out of the Seattle Fog: Republican Gains in Washington

  I have to admit that sitting here in New Jersey- about as far away as you can get from Washington without heading out in a boat into the Atlantic Ocean- Washington politics is a distant thought also.  But, after reading some local newspapers on the internet and some other articles about Washington politics in national publications, I have to say, you guys rock.  There are some very interesting races going on in the state that may foretell overall Democratic chances in the Senate and the House this year.  With no Governor’s race this year, the only statewide race is for the seat of incumbent Democratic Senator Patty Murray.  Since I am analyzing these races from afar based on these local articles and others, please correct me if I am wrong.

     Murray is perhaps one of Barack Obama’s most reliable allies in the Senate.  Using a blanket primary system where the two largest vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, go up against each other in the general election, Murray led with the vote while Republican Dino Rossi came in second with Clint Didier finishing a distant third.  Didier was supported by the national and state TEA Party and was also endorsed personally by Sarah Palin.  However, his loss in the primary was one of a handful of losses for Palin-backed candidates nationally.  Since the primary, Didier has not openly endorsed Rossi because Rossi is thus far refusing to succumb to a set of demands.  For her part, Murray has refused to submit to Project VoteSmart’s Political Courage Test for incumbents and received a 0% rating as a result.  But this much is known about Murray.  She has received rather consistent 100% ratings from NARAL and a mere 7% rating from the Taxpayers Union group and 0% ratings from other taxpayer watchdog groups.  She has received endorsements from SEIU, other unions, and EMILY’s List.  Put another way, Murray is a rather consistent liberal in the Obama mold.  Rossi, on the other hand, has proposed using unexpended stimulus funds to pay down the federal deficit, repeal Obamacare, and repeal Wall Street reform.  In an environmentally-minded state (sorry, a lot of us on the East Coast view Washingtonians as hardcore liberal tree huggers), Rossi supports alternative energy solutions (being from Washington, that is a necessary prerequisite for political acceptance), but does not support cap-and-trade.  Murray is the antithesis of these positions.

      Whether Didier eventually supports Rossi- his views seem in line with TEA Party fiscal goals- remains to be seen.  More importantly, whether TEA Party support for Rossi will play any role in this election is debatable.  Realistically, although Didier may have been the consummate outsider, Rossi had the greater name recognition in the state having twice lost statewide races.  In fact, it is Rossi who hold the dubious honor of losing the closest governor’s race in the history of Washington, if not the country (less than 3,000 votes).  Personally, I doubt that the Didier supporters will really shift their support to a liberal like Murray.

     For Rossi, his perceptually most problematic feature is the fact that he is a commercial real estate broker and since real estate and the housing bubble basically led to the most recent financial meltdown, Murray is taking advantage of this.  Additionally, Murray is touting the fact that Rossi has expressed his opposition to the recently-passed Wall Street reform legislation.  However, it is also interesting that Murray was recently identified as the politician who rates #2 in receiving money from lobbyists nationally.  For someone trying to depict herself as a champion of the middle class, this seems like a strange fact.  Added to the fact that Rossi can claim that 85% of his contributions come from individuals.

      The key to victory in Washington statewide is King County and how one approaches the electoral strategy.  As I understand it, it is considered the “boa strategy” where the goal is to win big in all areas outside King County and put the squeeze on the liberal heartland of Seattle and the surrounding area.  King County has a population of over 1 million.  The strategy worked for Republican Slade Gorton when he won his Senate campaigns.  Conversely, if one cannot carry through on the strategy, electoral strategies indicate that simply pulling in King County can secure a victory for the more liberal opponent.  In fact, six years ago, Murray out-polled her Republican opponent in King County by over 200,000 votes.  And the strategy worked for Cantwell in her Senate campaign and Chris Gregoire in their gubernatorial campaign and the breaking point appears to be around the 150,000 vote advantage point. 

     Among the Congressional districts (there are 9), only two districts favored McCain in 2008 with only one- the Fourth- favoring McCain by double digits.  Conversely, in the 2004 and 2000 elections, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th went for Bush.  The difference from the Bush to the McCain figures indicate a weakening of Republican support.  Meanwhile, in the districts that voted for either Gore or Kerry, one saw a strengthening of support for Obama with many single digit losses turning into double digit losses for McCain.  Considering the fact that both Senators are Democrats, the Governor is Democratic and six of nine Congressmen are Democratic, one would have to conclude that Washington has become somewhat reliably blue.  And most of this is due to the explosion in growth along Puget Sound and the Seattle/Tacoma area.  With the bulk of the population in Washington located west of the Cascades, any statewide victory strategy needs to be based there.

      In polling thus far, Rossi actually leads by 4 points in the most recent polls and overall in the average of all polls taken since May pitting Rossi against Murray, he trails by less than a point.  Thus this race would be an absolute, classic toss up at this point and momentum heading into the general election will decide this race.  In that area, Rossi would appear to have the advantage which would explain why the advertising has turned decidedly negative recently.  While Murray tries to portray Rossi as the same old loser in previous elections in Washington- trying to localize the race, if you will- Rossi’s strategy of nationalizing the race is paying dividends as evidenced by the polls. 

     When this electoral cycle began, this Washington Senate race was not even on the radar.  The fact that it is not only on the radar, but a toss up with the Republican challenger carrying the momentum into the general election speaks volumes regarding the mood in the country.  Even among liberals.  It would appear to liberals that it is too much too quick done half-assed anyway and this may very well hurt Murray’s chances.  If a liberal cannot win Washington, then the Democratic Party is in more trouble than they think they are in currently.

     And the Congressional races are no different.  Only five of the state’s nine districts are safely in the hands of the incumbent party- the 1st, 4th, 5th, and 6th- and they are evenly split (two Democratic, two Republican incumbents).  The fifth- in Washington’s 7th district- the incumbent Democrat is running unopposed.  One seat is open- in the 3rd district- currently held by the retiring Democrat Brian Baird.  With the announcement of his retirement, Republicans saw a great opportunity to pick up a seat in the state.  In a district rated dead even by Cook in their PVI, the Democrats pit Denny Heck against Jaime Herrera (yes, Howard Dean, there are Hispanic surnames and women in the GOP).  And thus far, Herrera, running on a campaign of independence (she says both parties have made mistakes), is up by 13 points in the most recent poll and overall by 11 points in the average of several polls.  Additionally, her tenure as a state legislator shows her to be bipartisan in nature- a right leaning moderate Republican which is a recipe for success in Washington for Republicans.

     Another opportunity to pick up a seat is in the Second District where incumbent Democrat Rick Larsen faces a serious challenge from John Koster.  In fact, this is a rematch of the 2000 race where Koster baely lost to Larsen by less than 12,000 votes.  Comprising the northern part of the western Washington, Larsen tries to portray himself as a moderate, yet the reality is something else.  He is decidedly pro-choice, was one of the loudest voices in Congress for a public option in Obamacare, has huge union support and has voted in lockstep with all major Obama initiatives.  So although he may perceive himself a moderate, his votes are sufficiently liberal to win the population base of the district- Everett.  And although Koster leads by 4 points in the most recent polls, overall he trails by an average of three points.  The simple translation is that Koster has the momentum heading into the general election, which is good news for the Republican Party.

     Also, one race that appears to be a little overlooked is in the 9th district where incumbent Democrat Adam Smith (great ironic name for a Democrat) appears to be having some problems shaking Republican opponent Dick Muri.  In minimal polling thus far, in a district rated +5 Democratic on the Cook PVI, Muri is within the margin of error.  Although Smith should prevail in this high population density area of Puget Sound, the fact that Muri is giving him such trouble thus far is reason to believe that the Democratic Party in Washington is in for a long night on November 2nd.

     One final Congressional race needs to be mentioned- the Eighth District currently represented by Republican Dave Reichert.  This district was targeted early by the Democrats as a possible pick up.  Today, given the trends nationally, they have been forced into viewing the race a mitigating-the-losses one.  And they thought they had a great prospect in former Microsoft executive Suzan DelBene.  However, Reichert has held a pretty consistent ten point lead on her and that trend holds true in the most recent poll.  This district consists of the more conservative eastern suburbs of Seattle and Republican chances are bolstered by a rather large Mormom population in the district.  And although Cook has the district +3 Democrat on the PVI, since the district was established in 1980, they have never elected a Democrat.  And while it is true that Reichert’s performance has not been overwhelming, he has prevailed.  In presidential races recently, the district has supported the Democrat in 2000, 2004 and by double digits in 2008.  This would indicate that Reichert remains popular within his district and should win re-election.

     Putting it all together, several facts need to be reconciled to reach conclusions.  Although most pundits consider Washington a blue state, there is enough unrest in the electorate to assume that Republicans will make gains.  As the general election nears, Republicans in the 2nd and 3rd districts along with Dino Rossi have the momentum.  The DCCC is pumping close to $1.5 million into advertising out of Seattle which reaches the 2nd, 3rd and 8th districts.  The Democrats are running scared in Washington and that is not good news for the Democratic Party nationally.  Hence, if I had to predict right now, I would say that the Republican Party will pick up at least two seats in the House and a Senate seat.

     Two final comments:  first, from everything I have read, vote counting in Washington is a local joke and notoriously slow.  We may not know the winners of certain elections until possibly Thanksgiving, if then if they are really close.  And even a Rossi loss in the Senate race needs to send a statement to Murray.  If she succeeds in defending her seat, it will be by the hair of her chinny-chin-chin.  Secondly, reapportionment of districts and whether Washington gains a seat will be of vital importance.  If the area west of the Cascades increases in population, it spells some trepidation for the Democratic Party in Washington in future elections.  At the very least, it would force some moderation upon the incumbents and future candidates.  Washington will always have its liberal base around Puget Sound and the Seattle region.  It is the suburbs and the rural areas where they have the most trouble and their brand of liberalism, should it be exported to these other grwoing areas, should be met with defeat.