Dino Rossi has done a few notable things since he lost the governor's race by a nose in 2004. He's written a book, started a nonprofit, and even purchased an ownership stake in a minor league baseball team (the Everett AquaSox, the Mariners' Class A affiliate). What he hasn't done is raise a dime for a potential 2008 rematch with Gov. Christine Gregoire, or, short of that, tell party faithful the two words they're dying to hear: "I'm in."
Rossi says he doesn't plan to announce his intentions until the end of this year. The question is whether the Republican Party can wait that long and still have any shot at the governor's office should Rossi decide to bow out.
"The longer he waits, if he decides not to run, the Republicans will be at a disadvantage because no one else is gearing up," says pollster Stuart Elway. "The end of the year is still pretty late: late for him, but really late if he doesn't get in."
"The worst of all worlds is if he waits until December to say no," agrees a former Republican campaign consultant who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Nobody will have his ability to raise a lot of money in a short period of time."
Washington State Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser acknowledges that if Rossi, after three years of mulling, says no in December, "it creates more of a challenge . . . no doubt." To prevent such a scenario from playing out, Esser says that he's doing everything he can—to the point of being superstitious—to motivate Rossi to say yes. "I'm crossing my fingers and knocking on wood," says Esser, who assumed the party chairmanship in January.
Saying that it would be "difficult" for the Republicans to find a stand-in in December is a "massive understatement," says former state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance. "If Dino's out, the party splinters and it gets very difficult," says Vance.
Democratic fund-raiser Colby Underwood, who got his start working on Gov. Gary Locke's 2000 re-election bid, says if he were advising Rossi, he would have recommended that the former state senator and real-estate investor start raising money around the first of this year. Instead Rossi, who raised and spent about $300,000 following the 2004 contest, has no funds in the bank; and according to the state's Public Disclosure Commission, he hasn't received a contribution since February 2006.
Some argue this is to be expected, since Rossi hasn't officially declared his intentions. But Underwood says the fact that Rossi isn't raising money—and shows no sign that he plans to start anytime soon—shows that there's a real question of whether he plans to run or not.
"The gist of it is that for any race that's going to be hotly contested, you normally start raising money as fast as you can," Underwood says. "If Rossi would've been blown out of the water, we wouldn't be having this conversation, but he lost by a couple [hundred] votes. The real question is, 'What's going on here?'"
A lot of people, Republicans and others, have been asking the same thing. "You half expect to see his face on the side of a milk carton: 'Missing since late 2004. If you see him, call 1-800-wheresDINO,'" quips John Arthur Wilson, a former Democratic political consultant and Seattle Weekly scribe. "Maybe an AMBER Alert will be issued for him."
Wilson, now a public-affairs consultant with Vance's former employer, the Gallatin Group, says it's really unusual for a potential statewide candidate to be 18 months out and not have any cash on hand. Usually, says Wilson, there's a brief hiatus in fund-raising: "Like about an hour and a half," he specifies, "and then they go back after it."
This is true, particularly since candidates may have to raise upwards of $8 million apiece to compete for the governor's seat in 2008. "We're seeing skyrocketing amounts of money for statewide offices," says conservative KVI talk-show host John Carlson, who challenged Locke for the post in 2000. "The fact that he has nothing in the bank comes as a mild surprise, but he has the capacity to raise a lot real fast."
Either way, Carlson adds that Gov. Gregoire—who already has more than $1 million banked for the race—will be formidable in 2008. "The viaduct issue notwithstanding, she's been very popular with the party base," he says. "The groups that wanted more spending got more spending. The groups that wanted higher taxes got higher taxes. The groups that wanted more rights got more rights."
Vance, the former party chairman, agrees that the next race will be completely different from 2004 no matter who the GOP runs. But he disagrees that Rossi's been completely MIA. On the contrary, Vance says, the former candidate been traveling the state "relentlessly" since 2005, speaking to small groups, campaigning for other Republicans, and promoting his book, Dino Rossi: Lessons in Leadership, Business, Politics and Life.
What he hasn't done, says Vance, is go out and try to draw attention to himself from the "Seattle" media. "He hasn't tried to influence the debate in Olympia; he hasn't criticized Gov. Gregoire; he hasn't made a public splash," says Vance. "That frustrates some people. It's frustrating for the Republican Party right now not to have a spokesperson that could go head-to-head with Gregoire. He could do that."
Rossi made an appearance earlier this month at the Cascade Conference of Washington's Mainstream Republicans, giving the luncheon address. Also there to speak was former U.S. Attorney John McKay. Though McKay's name has been floated as a possible Rossi replacement, the rising party star recently accepted a top legal post at Getty Images and says he has no intentions of running for office.
If Rossi doesn't run, all eyes will turn to state Attorney General Rob McKenna, says Vance. But there's slim chance McKenna would be interested, Vance speculates. "I've known Rob for a long time," he says. "He likes being the AG and is in no rush to do anything else. Once you get past Rossi and McKenna, it gets really tough to find someone who can pull the Republican Party together."
For his part, Rossi says he has no intentions to stop the guessing game before December. "We'll see where we are by the end of the year," he says. "We have four children between the ages of 6 and 16. We need to make sure it's right for the family."
Rossi surfaced last week with the launch of a Web site (washingtonideabank.org) geared toward getting Washingtonians to brainstorm about ways to make the state a better place. He says he plans to hold events around the state this summer to encourage people to share their ideas, but that this is not to be construed as some kind of pre-campaign effort.
Though he says he understands the party's concerns, Rossi rejects the notion that he puts the Republicans in a pinch if he bows out months from now. "You don't have to start these things two years ahead of time," he says. "Last time I started a year before the election and had 12 percent name ID statewide."
For now, party Chairman Esser says there's no Plan B if Rossi decides against running. "My focus is getting our state party into shape to get grounds for success for Dino," says Esser. "I haven't heard of anybody [else] remotely thinking about starting a campaign. People are focused on Rossi, at least for now. It's his for the taking."