Gregoire’s Red Scare

Why is an incumbent Democratic governor in a dark-blue state having such a tough time in her quest for re-election?

Last month, Democrats statewide had a collective "oh, shit" moment. The panic, which heretofore had been at a slow burn, was stoked by a Sept. 10 Rasmussen poll that showed gubernatorial challenger Dino Rossi leading incumbent Gov. Christine Gregoire by six points. According to Rasmussen, a national polling firm based in New Jersey, it marked the first time in this election season that the former state senator from Issaquah had broken the critical 50 percent threshold. (Gregoire hit 50 percent in June and has been falling ever since: 49 percent in July, 47 percent in August, and 46 percent in September, according to Rasmussen.) By comparison, a poll commissioned in late September 2004 by the Tacoma News Tribune showed Gregoire up 49 to 43 percent. She went on to beat Rossi that November by a mere 133 votes. But it's more than just a poll or two that's causing anxiety among Democrats. It's the feeling that the incumbent is underperforming as a candidate. "She's had three effective legislative sessions, run a corruption-free administration, and has a ton of money," says David Olson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Washington. "All of that, as well as [Barack] Obama at the head of the ticket, should lead to a comfy re-election drive. But that's not what has happened." The first real indication that things weren't going as smoothly as desired was the Aug. 19 primary, when Gregoire only pulled 48 percent to Rossi's 46 percent of the statewide vote. Since then, Democratic fear that this election is up for grabs has only intensified. But Chris Vance, a political consultant and former state Republican Party chairman, says nobody should be surprised that this is a dogfight. "I don't understand the complacency of the liberal intelligentsia in this state who don't believe a Republican can win," he says. "Dino nearly won last time, and he came out of the experience as a very compelling, sympathetic figure." Some Democrats agree. "We always knew this was going to be a close race," says Democratic consultant Christian Sinderman, who worked on Gregoire's 2004 campaign. "Traditionally, Washington is a swing state at the statewide level and driven largely by a vital number of independent voters who will switch their mind a number of times through the campaign cycle." However, party identification has been trending Democratic for the past six to eight years, according to pollster Stuart Elway, who says the current breakdown in the state is 39 percent Democratic, 29 percent Republican, and 32 percent Independent. Also, contrary to local lore, Washington voters rarely split their tickets. The most recent time the state elected both a Democrat and a Republican to high office was 1984, when Ronald Reagan won the state and Booth Gardner was voted governor. And Washington has not elected a Republican governor since John Spellman in 1980. So why is an incumbent Democrat with a laundry list of accomplishments in Olympia, in a Democratic state, in a Democratic year, neck-and-neck with a guy who's arguably done nothing but beat the same conservative drum? The answer is part strategy and part personality—but the bottom line is that Gregoire, even after four years in the governor's mansion, is still not connecting with the people she needs to keep her there. Gregoire's not known for being a natural campaigner; she's sharp one-on-one or in small groups, but often comes across stiff on the stump. This summer, during one of her larger events, a fundraiser at Seattle's WaMu Theater with Michelle Obama, Gregoire seemed to clumsily waffle between a forced casualness and a fighter persona. She started the speech by awkwardly proclaiming that her daughter Michelle was "her best friend," then she talked about her other daughter Courtney's upcoming marriage at the governor's mansion. Gregoire also spoke about a "very private moment" where she got to know Barack Obama—and added that she knows he loves his wife, Michelle, "very much." Gregoire, perhaps trying too hard to be casual, sounded downright creepy. Later, during her speech's crescendo, instead of hammering home what she's accomplished over the past four years, Gregoire reminded people just how close the election was last time, striking a strange, discordant tone: "I know better than any governor in the U.S. that every vote counts," she said. "This race must be called at 8:10 election night." The response, from the 1,600 in attendance who paid $200 each for a seat, some salad, and strawberry parfait, was tepid applause. "She's much more comfortable in negotiations and providing organizational leadership than she is glad-handing in a political sense," explains Paul Berendt, the former state Democratic Party chairman. "She's always been a much stronger governor than a politician." "I think it's a personality question with Chris. She's a policy wonk," says public affairs consultant Mark Funk, who served as press secretary for Republican Rep. Sid Morrison's 1992 gubernatorial bid. "Perhaps she needs to pull her hair back in a Palin-type bun." A former Gregoire insider, who would only speak anonymously, says Gregoire, as a smart and commanding female figure, faces a conundrum similar to Hillary Clinton's: "Do we make her more of a commander-in-chief? Or humanize her? Hillary started winning in the end when she started drinking with people. I think the best thing for [Gregoire] would be to stress her family. People don't see her as a mother. I think people need to see her in that light to break through this. People understand that she is a good governor and has done a good job, [but] I don't think they're voting on that. The campaign needs to get across who she is." It's evident that the campaign is trying to do that. Gregoire often has at least one daughter in tow to vouch for her at events. And when she's not introducing Courtney or Michelle as her "best friends," she's referring to her husband Mike as such—though sometimes awkwardly, as she did at an event in Seattle last week when she paused in the middle of her remarks to point him out. "There's my husband Mike. I didn't see him here before," Gregoire said, interrupting a more salient campaign point. "We don't call him the first dude," she added, in reference to the preferred nickname for Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin's husband Todd. "I always felt that to be successful, she should tap into her inner [Rudy] Giuliani," says Peter Jackson, a former speechwriter for the governor. "Don't worry about being loved—be the person who kicks ass. Because that's who she is." While Gregoire may have some of the same trouble Clinton had in walking the line between loving mother and whipcracker, her problem in connecting with voters is not about gender, but a failure to embrace her strengths on the campaign trail. "Part of [Gregoire's] strength in government is that she is very substantive and deliberate," Sinderman says. "She has a challenge in communicating her success in a political format, which isn't her strength." Rossi, on the other hand, has succeeded despite being mum on specifics, except when it comes to transportation, a plan even some Republicans dismiss as laughable. His $15 billion transportation plan proposed, among other things, to replace the existing four-lane 520 bridge with an eight-lane crossing and the Alaskan Way viaduct with a tunnel. He's pitched paying for both, and for numerous other road projects, with sales-tax revenue from the general fund that is currently used to fund education, health care, and other services. "He was wrong-footed with the one issue he got specific on," says Funk. "His plan didn't pass the straight-face test to an electorate very sophisticated on transportation." "Nobody's really stuck to Dino and said, 'Say we do elect you governor. You're going to have an overwhelmingly Democratic House and Senate. How's that going to work? How are you going to bridge this?'" says Democratic consultant John Arthur Wilson, a former Seattle Weekly and Eastside Week editor. Of course, those who think Rossi was robbed in 2004 have been waiting patiently to vote for him again. When you ask Democrats why the race is so close, many of them offer that spin. But it's really more than that: Rossi, who has a salesman's ease when it comes to glad-handing, seems to be winning the popularity contest between the two. As Darcy Burner, who's running for Congress in the Eighth District, said at the Eastside Democrats dinner last month: "[Gregoire] shows up every day and gets the work done. She's running against a guy with a very white smile and a cute haircut who thinks that ought to be enough." Whether he's well-suited or an empty suit, something about Rossi's boyish good looks and rich-uncle persona seems to put voters at ease. "Dino's supporters are true believers. More of Dino's popularity is based on his personality, or people's perceptions of it," says James Bush, a county council aide and former Seattle Weekly City Hall reporter. "With Christine, it's more about an approval of her policies than a personal enthusiasm for her. She is a career government lawyer who people put in Olympia to get things done." The problem, some argue, is that Gregoire has yet to effectively communicate what she's accomplished. "What she hasn't done yet is pull out a couple examples in her tenure as governor that are the clarion call for why you need her for the next four years," says Wilson. "She's a hard-nosed negotiator for tough times. It's endemic to her persona. The irony is that she hasn't marshaled that as a campaign strategy." The resulting vacuum has created an opening for interest groups. While Rossi and Gregoire have both gotten help from independent campaigns on their behalf, the biggest outside influence in the race has been the Building Industry Association of Washington, which has thus far spent nearly $2.2 million on ads attacking the governor for everything from being cozy with the tribes to being weak on crime and losing the Sonics to Oklahoma City. They've also purchased the now-infamous billboards in eastern Washington that read "Don't let Seattle steal this election." Part of Gregoire's messaging problem stems from the fact that for much of her first term as governor, she's had what could generously be described as an uneven communications operation. To wit, she's burned though four speechwriters and four communications directors in as many years. "The governor accomplished a lot during her first term: children's health care, education funding, civil rights, protecting the environment, improving the business climate. But for the most part the public was not made aware of that," says Burner's campaign spokesperson, Sandeep Kaushik. "I think most political observers would agree that until the recent staff changes there, her communications shop had not done enough to spread the news about her record of achievement." In addition to cruising through communications personnel, Gregoire also opted to purge her 2004 campaign team and put new leadership in place this time around. At the helm is Kelly Evans, who managed the pro–Proposition 1 effort in 2007 (the proposition, a massive transportation initiative, ended up failing by a wide margin). Rossi, on the other hand, has virtually the same team he had four years ago. "It's both interesting and ironic," says Wilson. "It appeared [Gregoire] would run a new campaign. She had new people. [But] it's almost like she simply re-cued the tape from four years ago. Dino had all the same people, but he's proven to be much lighter on his feet." Sinderman, who no longer works for Gregoire, says the governor learned two lessons from 2004: Have a broader statewide field operation, and don't give Rossi the chance to define himself. He argues that things have improved on both fronts. To be sure, Gregoire does have more of a statewide presence this time around. In 2004 she had one campaign office—in Seattle. This year there are 13 field offices statewide. But Gregoire has yet to define her opponent—again. "They're allowing Rossi to paint a picture of a governor, and they're not reciprocating," says the UW's Olson. "The campaign is not what you would expect of an incumbent." In the meantime, Rossi has, with some measure of success, distanced himself from the wounded Republican Party and seized the mantle of "change," something Gregoire thought she'd secured when she endorsed Obama relatively early in February. "We've had the same people in charge in Olympia for a generation," says Rossi spokesperson Jill Strait. "We think they're ready for a change." What's more, Rossi is identifying himself on the ballot as a member of the "GOP" rather than as a Republican, a clever ploy made possible by Washington's new party-neutral top-two primary. This has managed to confuse the 25 percent of the population who, according to an Elway poll, don't understand that GOP and Republican are one and the same. Elway's numbers show Gregoire ahead by 10 percent when her opponent is identified as a Republican, a lead that dwindles to four points when Rossi goes by "GOP." A week after this revelation, the state Democratic Party filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court asking Secretary of State Sam Reed to require Rossi to identify himself as a Republican, accusing him of exploiting the top-two primary rules to confuse voters. On Sept. 26, the court ruled against the Democrats. Meanwhile, Gregoire's approval rating is nothing to scoff at. In June it was at an all-time high of 52 percent, up from 45 percent last year, according to Elway. And Elway's most recent poll shows Gregoire besting Rossi in the areas of "leadership," "ability to manage state government," "inspiring confidence," "background and experience," and "likeability." However, the two are tied on "vision for the future." "The reason the Democrats are so nervous is that she seems to be underperforming [as a candidate]," Elway says. "If she has positive ratings, and if Democratic identification in this state outnumbers Republican by 10 points, why is it so close?" This summer, Gregoire agreed to debate Rossi six times, a surprisingly large number for a sitting governor. With the advantage that comes from holding office, incumbents aren't prone to risk the mistakes that can occur in debates. But given Gregoire's performance in the first of these debates, which took place in Seattle on Sept. 20, it may prove to be a shrewd tactical move. Here, Gregoire the fighter landed blow after blow. On the environment, Rossi said, "We need to leave the campsite better than we found it." Gregoire then counterpunched: "It's one thing to leave the campsite. It's another thing to lead. I have a bold new plan to clean up Puget Sound for future generations. He has no plan to do anything about Puget Sound. And no plan to step up to global climate change. He's still debating the science." On health care, Rossi rambled: "I go to an environmental allergist. We should have plans that offer choices and make them affordable." To which Gregoire demurred: "I know how important health care is to the people in Washington...Let's take a look at what my opponent did [in the state Senate]. He cut kids off health care." On crime, Gregoire elaborated: "I was a three-term incumbent attorney general, a criminal investigator. I cracked down on sex offenders. I've been endorsed by all the major law enforcement organizations in Washington." Rossi's retort: "She's endorsed by the lobbyists. I'm endorsed by the rank and file." At one point you almost expected the governor to turn to the camera and say, a la Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis on Saturday Night Live, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy!" Toward the end of the hour-long televised debate, Gregoire, perhaps with a nod to some of her weak spots, said, "Too often campaigns are about sound bites and slogans. My opponent is good at that." Always the prosecutor, Gregoire came across crisper and more genuine in the debate then she does at campaign events. Rossi's camp, for its part, says they were pleased with his performance. "I think Dino Rossi made a strong case about why we need change in Olympia," says Strait. In an interview, Gregoire acknowledges that debates are a forum in which she excels. "I'm not into one-liners," she says. "I think the issues deserve more heft than that." Still, she was back the following day at the Eastside Democrats dinner in Newcastle, giving the same half-casual/half-fighter speech that ended in an awkward attempt to lead the room in an Obama-style rally chant—"Fired up, ready to go!"—an effort that disintegrated into jumbled applause as Gregoire left the stage. She didn't hesitate to bring up the debate, however, and Rossi's "leave the campsite" comment, but it was clear many of those present hadn't watched the showdown. Every campaign season has an X factor, something that could work for or against either candidate; this year it's the economy. "The voters are either going to blame it on the Republican administration in D.C. or they're going to blame it on the Democratic administration in Olympia," says Funk. "How they parcel out the blame for the economic morass will decide the race." Perhaps a good sign for the Democrats is that Gregoire seems acutely aware that her stewardship of the state's economy is one argument she's got to win to stay in office. Asked in an interview about her most important accomplishment during her first term, Gregoire said matter-of-factly, "If we had perspective, we could see the difference between ours and any other states. We've created jobs. We're third-ranked as the best state to do business, according to Forbes." However, word last month that a $530 million dip in the state's projected tax revenue will put the budget deficit at $3.2 billion come January will no doubt give Rossi a boost. "I think Dino's had this going his way for several weeks now in terms of the issues like state spending, the economy, and change," says Vance. The latest Survey USA poll, out Sept. 24, shows a slight rebound for Gregoire, putting her at 50 percent to Rossi's 48—but the candidates are still in a statistical dead heat. "She could lose this," says UW's Olson. "I think it's up for grabs." A couple of bright spots for Gregoire can be gleaned from her August primary showing. She won in Snohomish and Pierce counties, both of which she lost in 2004. And turnout in her strongest county, King, was an abysmal 34 percent. The general election is sure to yield increased turnout, but either way it's key for Gregoire to dominate King County. Though she fared reasonably well here in 2004, beating Rossi 58 to 40 percent, she did not win as handily as many Democrats have in the state's bluest corner. Presidential candidate John Kerry, for example, carried the county by a 65–34 margin, while Sen. Patty Murray earned 65 percent of the vote. At the national level, Democrats aren't taking any chances with what is arguably the most competitive gubernatorial race in the country. There was Michelle Obama's appearance at WaMu Theater with Gregoire in July. Democratic strategist James Carville was in town recently to wow party loyalists at the Century Ballroom on Capitol Hill. "You know those right-wing groups, talk radio, that whole freak show is going to come at her with everything they've got," the Ragin' Cajun said. "I want you to be able to tell me, 'Don't worry. We've got everything under control in Washington State.'" And former Vice President Al Gore is expected to make an appearance in the coming weeks to give Gregoire a lift. Expect the Democrats to hammer Rossi on social issues down the stretch. Though he likes to couch himself as a moderate, Rossi is anti-abortion, against certain rights for domestic partners, and dubious of morning-after contraception and stem-cell research. To this end, the Gregoire campaign started last month to air emotional ads on the need for embryonic stem-cell research and emergency contraception in instances of rape. To be successful, Gregoire needs to play off her strengths and steer the race away from personality politics or the rematch narrative. "You need to wherever possible have that one-on-one engagement," says Sinderman. "Keep her out in the community talking about her record." For his part, Wilson suggests letting "Gregoire be Gregoire"—as long as that means tapping her inner fighter. "Does she need to develop a message as to why she deserves another term?" he adds rhetorically. "Hell, yeah." acurl@seattleweekly.com

 
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