Whatever the outcome of the national election, voters in Washington have a real chance to do serious damage to the state Republicans in 2004.
The party is betting its money on a few key statewide races, running "moderates" for top positions, notably Dino Rossi (governor), George Nethercutt (U.S. Senate), Rob McKenna (attorney general), and Dave Reichert (U.S. House, 8th District). These guys are personable, but they're phony moderates. They're only moderate in the sense that George W. Bush is moderate: They put a friendly face on an extreme conservative agenda that's far to the right of most Washingtonians.
While the state Republicans are pushing these Bush clones, it's interesting to note what they're not doing: mounting a challenge to Democrats in many key statewide and congressional races. Indeed, the party has had trouble fielding a full slate of credible candidates, apparently because its "mainstream" bench still isn't deep enough. The GOP is huffing and puffing to seem like contenders, but its ranks are thin.
Remember Linda Smith, Jack Metcalf, Rick White, and Randy Tate? All were Republican right-wingers who represented Western Washington districts in Congress in recent years. The Democrats have taken back this turf and have held it long enough that their incumbents are entrenched. Brian Baird, Adam Smith, Jay Inslee, and Rick Larsen will likely be re-elected with only token resistance in what were supposed to be swing districts.
On top of that, the Democrats are laying siege to previously impregnable GOP strongholds. Two congressional seats being vacated by incumbent Republicans could be won by Democrats, one in Eastern Washington, the other in the Eastside suburbs. Nethercutt's decision to run for U.S. Senate and Jennifer's Dunn's retirement have opened up opportunities for the Dems. Spokane businessman Don Barbieri is challenging to retake the seat Nethercutt took from then–House Speaker Tom Foley in the 5th District; and former radio talk-show host Dave Ross could become that most unlikely creature, a Democrat representing Bellevue and the 8th District. Neither race is a gimme. But the fact they're in play is a sign of Republican weakness. The Democrats could nearly run the congressional table this year, taking eight of Washington's nine seats. That could have huge implications for control of Congress.
Washington's statewide officeholders are nearly all Democrats, though the GOP was able to retain its toehold on secretary of state with Sam Reed's election in 2000 and pick up an office when Doug Sutherland won the lands commissioner job that same year. Looking at this year's ballot, most of the Democratic incumbents running again seem headed for re-election. Yes, last week's primary vote skewed heavily Democratic, perhaps in part because two of the most hotly contested statewide races were on the Democratic side, leading people to choose the Democratic ticket. Nevertheless, it's never a good sign when incumbents get fewer votes than their primary challengers, and that happened both in the secretary of state and lands commissioner races.
Interestingly, both GOP incumbents, Reed and Sutherland, are prototypical GOP moderates, but it doesn't seem to be doing them much good. Both face serious challenges in usually obscure races that this year will have a higher profile. The lands commissioner race could wind up as an unofficial referendum on the industry-friendly Bush-style approach to forest policy and land management. Last week, a $250,000 donation to Sutherland's Democratic opponent, Mike Cooper, by well-heeled environmentalist Peter Goldman nudged the race onto the radar screen.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Reed might absorb punishment because of voter rage about the loss of our open primary system (not Reed's fault, by the way), unenthusiastic support from party regulars who think he should embrace a closed primary system, and black box voting angst, an issue seized by his opponent, Laura Ruderman. The bottom line is that the GOP could lose two state offices it currently holds.
They'd gladly suffer those losses if they could trade up and grab the governor's and the attorney general's offices. Dino Rossi is wrapping himself in the cloak of "new leadership" and asking if it isn't time for a change in Olympia. Hard to say no to that. But he wants us to overlook some of what that change would represent. Abortion, the pro-life Rossi says, isn't a state issue anymore. Yeah, right. This is part of the GOP tactic of trying to take hot-button values issues off the table. But we're facing possibly four more years of Bush and a new Bush- appointed Supreme Court, so such issues are, perhaps more than ever, state issues.
Rossi's supposed moderation might go toe-to-toe with Christine Gregoire's own—and in general, Washington voters seem to prefer Democratic centrists who are pro-business, tax resistant, and liberal on social issues. Only McKenna faces a Democratic opponent who might be too immoderate even for some Dems. Senn has a grandstanding style that has put off some within the party—she barely squeaked by Mark Sidran in the primary—and this could help McKenna appear to be the more sensible choice by contrast. McKenna could be the state GOP's best hope.
But Democrats say their base is motivated and mad. Even while the current national polls don't hold much good news for John Kerry, a lost presidential election doesn't necessarily mean defeat at home. Democrats and independents who refuse to be deterred or disillusioned by what they can't control elsewhere could make a huge difference by channeling their energy and resources into local races—and giving the "moderate" Republicans a royal pummeling.