Armageddon for the GOP

With seven days left, Dino Rossi and other Washington Republicans need a miracle.

As the election campaigns enter the final week, GOP consultant Dave Mortenson echoes the sentiments of candidates, operatives, and voters alike: "One woman compared it to childbirth. When you get to the end, you just want it to be over with."

While momentum can shift in as little as a week, Nov. 2 still, as it has for months, looks good for state Democrats. Last week, the GOP received bad news from some of its own. First, on Tuesday, Oct. 19, Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed predicted a staggering turnout of 84 percent of the state's voters in the general election—the highest in 60 years. Says fellow Republican Randy Pepple, CEO of Rockey Hill & Knowlton: "When you get above 80 percent, that's dangerous for any Republican." That's because as turnout increases, the electorate becomes more inclusive, with more low-income and minority voters—two groups that favor the Democrats.

Then on Wednesday, Oct. 20, the GOP firm Strategic Vision released a poll of state voters that showed Democratic Sen. John Kerry leading President George W. Bush in Washington 50 percent to 45 percent; Democratic Sen. Patty Murray was ahead of her challenger, GOP U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt of Spokane, 49-41; and Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Christine Gregoire was besting her Republican opponent, former state Sen. Dino Rossi of Sammamish, 48-42. All the leads were outside the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent. In fact, all the polls released publicly by any campaign or independent group in the past two months have shown Kerry, Murray, and Gregoire ahead, although not always beyond the polls' margins of error.

Many Republicans were left hoping that Bush would have such a decisive victory elsewhere in the country that the TV networks would declare the president the victor before the polls close in Washington. "Bush is going to win a lot of states back East," says GOP consultant Mortenson. "What ramifications will that have on voting in Washington state?"

Democratic consultant Christian Sinderman responds: "If that's their talking point, they must be worried about Armageddon."

It is hard to see any signs of Republican victory in the Washington races for president or U.S. Senate. The GOP got boosts, however, when Rossi was endorsed by five daily newspapers: The Seattle Times, The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, The News Tribune of Tacoma, The Herald of Everett, and The Columbian of Vancouver. In the wake of those, The Cook Political Report, the newsletter of a respected national political analyst, changed the race from "lean Democrat" to "toss-up." The Gregoire campaign responded by pointing out that the attorney general had received endorsements from six dailies (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Tri-City Herald, The Daily World of Aberdeen, The Olympian, The Sun of Bremerton, and the Skagit Valley Herald), and that the most recent polling had the Democratic candidate anywhere from 6 to 12 points ahead.

Jennifer Duffy, The Cook Political Report's managing editor, says she changed her analysis of the race's competitiveness based on her instincts about national trends. She notes that in states where one party or another has dominated the governor's mansion for a number of years, voters lately seem to favor a change of parties. "Every once in a while, voters rotate the tires."

This argument mimics Rossi's central pitch: Democrats have controlled the governor's mansion in Olympia for more than 20 years; the state's business climate has deteriorated; it's time for a change; as a businessman, he understands that regulation is strangling entrepreneurial opportunity.

GOP consultant Pepple admits, however, that Gregoire has effectively countered Rossi's pitch by casting her opponent as an "Olympia insider." Gregoire pointed out that Rossi served as a state senator for seven years and rose to the powerful post of chair of the Senate's Ways and Means Committee. "That's a very good move on her part," says Pepple.

Rossi's argument was further weakened this week when the state's unemployment rate dropped to 5.6 percent, the lowest in three years and only slightly higher than the national rate of 5.4 percent. Not long ago, Washington had one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Rossi's campaign downplayed the good news by pointing out that much of the job gain was in the state government and education sectors. But Rossi's argument that the state economy has been in tough shape because the Democrats have been making life hard for business just doesn't stand up.

Dick Conway, a private, consulting economist in Seattle, says the state's recession had to do with three factors. First, Boeing went through one of its cyclical downturns and laid off around 25,000 people in 1998. Then a number of dot-coms—metro Puget Sound had a higher concentration of them compared to many other cities—went bust. Finally, terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and in 9/11's wake, Boeing cut another 25,000 jobs. The resulting recession was the worst in state history since the famous Boeing bust that began in 1969. The reasons for the recession were beyond the control of state government, says Conway. He adds, "I read nothing in those developments that say we should be doing something differently than we were."

Conway says the state's economic recovery is under way. "We would expect pretty good job growth for the next two to three years," he explains. "A lot of what happens over the next few years has nothing to do with one governor or another."

Does that mean state government should do nothing about economic development? No, but we certainly need to be suspicious of Rossi's promise of regulatory reform. During the two gubernatorial debates that were broadcast statewide, Rossi offered little else in the way of solutions.

Rossi wants to set up a governor's office of regulatory reform. His spokesperson, Janelle Guthrie, says the goal is to streamline regulations to make it easier for businesses to comply with important health, safety, and environmental goals. "A way to help people through the maze," she explains.

While the proposal sounds innocent enough, keep in mind that Rossi has a terrible record when it comes to protecting the environment and workers' safety. In his seven years in the Senate, the Washington State Labor Council says Rossi has only voted with them 6 percent of the time. Only two other senators have a voting record as bad during that period, says Labor Council spokesperson David Groves. Rossi did better on the environment but still received a failing grade from the Washington Conservation Voters of 36 percent in the same period. Meanwhile, Rossi racked up an incredible 99 percent voting record with the Building Industry Association of Washington, an avowed enemy of labor and environmental regulation.

Is Gregoire offering a better approach to economic development? While she has an excellent record on the environment during her tenure as director of the state Department of Ecology and as attorney general, which has earned her the backing of environmental groups, and though she is enthusiastically endorsed by labor, her central economic proposal is not exactly inspiring. Gregoire wants to take $500 million from the state's tobacco settlement and direct it to biotech research. She believes such a targeted investment might help encourage a sector that could yield between 68,000 and 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years, according to her spokesperson, Morton Brilliant.

That's completely unrealistic. There are around 3 million workers in Washington. Biotech is not a significant enough sector for the state Employment Security Department to even bother tracking. The Washington Biotech and Biomedical Association, a local trade group, says the biotech and biomedical sectors employ around 19,300 people in 190 companies statewide. There is no way that biotech will add even half as many workers as Gregoire predicts in the next 10 years. Right now, all software publishers (think Microsoft) in the entire state only employ 40,000 people.

Economist Joe Cortright, author of a study of biotech for the Brookings Institution, says, "Biotechnology is not a transformative force in the economy." Biotechnology is not going to yield products that will be a part of a huge technological change in the American workplace as computers were, Cortright explains. Biotech will always be a boutique industry, he says, and will never employ large numbers of people.

So why is Gregoire making such outlandish claims? First, biotech is the economic development industry du jour. Cortright says, "Biotech is an idea virus that has swept governors and mayors across the country." Obviously, Gregoire has caught the fever from her political mentor, Gov. Gary Locke, who pushed a similar proposal, dubbed Bio 21, last year. Also, local business boosters are in full sell mode on the subject. Just last week, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce dedicated its annual regional leadership conference to plugging biotech. The speakers included one of Gregoire's key advisers, political consultant Frank Greer, who led a panel about "how the research industry can achieve the level of political support needed to sustain strong public investment."

There is another reason that Gregoire pushes the issue: It reminds people that Rossi is a pro-life, creationist, religious conservative and significantly out of step with Washington voters. Gregoire doesn't just talk about investing in biotech generally. She specifically talks about investing in a stem-cell research institute. Every Democratic candidate around the country, from Kerry on down, is talking about stem cells. It's a way of appealing to the independent and moderate Republican voters who don't like the fact that religious conservatives like Bush and Rossi are thwarting the advance of science. Even Republican Pepple says it's savvy politics to bring up the subject so much. "You have to give credit to the Gregoire team on that," he says.

It's one more reason that unless something major happens between now and Nov. 2, Christine Gregoire will be Washington's next governor.

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
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