Do three losses in six years a political obituary make? What does the future hold for Dino Rossi? Two weeks after losing his latest bid for U.S. Senate, the questions are easy to ask but harder to answer.
After losing a tough, painful election, most politicians are reticent about talking with the media. Dino has been no exception. Hence, the only way to predict the future is to analyze the past.
Rewind the tape one year. Fifteen different Republicans had either declared or were preparing their candidacy. Who remembers James "Skip" Mercer, James Latimer, Daniel Leblanc, Rodney Joe Reiger, Norma Gruber, Wayne Glover, William Chovil or Edward Torres? Although unknown to nearly everyone outside their immediate family, at one point or another, each felt they had the chops to take on Sen. Patty Murray.
Consider the next rung of candidates who managed to get an actual campaign off the ground, attend forums and attract donors: Craig Williams, Sean Salazar, Art Coday, Paul Akers, Don Benton, and Clint Didier. Some were likable enough, in a David-and-Goliath manner. None managed to capture the hearts or minds of the party's base.
Chris Widener was one of the company of second-tier candidates dallying with office. A motivational speaker and close personal friend of Rossi, he was one of the first to step aside when it became apparent that Rossi would enter the race. "For a bunch of no-names with no money, we were polling within six percent," Widener says. "After two years [of President Obama], we thought that the state was ready to throw all the bums out."
Contacted in December of 2009, Rossi told this reporter that he had no desire to run for U.S. Senate, that he enjoyed having a "real life". This squares with Widener's assertion that Rossi had no real desire to serve in D.C. With four children at home, the prospect of commuting back-and-forth across the country held little luster.
The victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts on January 19, 2010, wresting Ted Kennedy's Senate seat from Democratic control, was a national game-changer. If a Republican could win in "Taxachusetts", then a Republican could win anywhere, including Washington state.
Widener said that Rossi was encouraged to run by state and national party leaders, because it was felt he was the only Republican in the state who could beat Murray. One can sense the desperation of RNC bigwigs at the prospect of Clint Didier from Eltopia on top of the ballot during a Red Tide election, making gaffes about "neutering" President Barack Obama's health-care plan. Murray's political team would have put together an ad campaign which would have murdered Didier, and they would have used him to bring down GOP candidates in other races as well.
Despite the prompting, it took Rossi four months to officially announce his candidacy. It was a costly delay that helped sow the seeds of defeat later.
"It was not anything he had as an ambition," Widener said of the race, adding that if prompted, he'd advise Rossi not to run again for a few years.
So if not Dino, then who?
The problem for Republicans is that they have a dearth of credible candidates on the bench. The bloodletting of 2006 made Republicans an endangered species in Western Washington, and conventional political wisdom states that an Eastern Washington Republican can't win a statewide race.
But a Rossi three-peat for Governor is unlikely since (more of that conventional wisdom) Attorney General Rob McKenna will now be vying for his party's nomination. McKenna will be running against incumbent Christine Gregoire or Congressman Jay Inslee.
The most likely target would have to be Sen. Maria Cantwell, who is up for re-election in 2012. Cantwell has a lot in common with Rossi. Her narrow victory in 2000 over Sen. Slade Gorton mandated a statewide recount; she eked by with 2,229 votes. Like Rossi, she has endured political defeat, being bounced from her Congressional seat after one term during the 1994 Republican Revolution. In 2006, as part of the Democrat "Blue Tide", she feasted on former Gorton staffer Mike! McGavick.
One can make the argument that Cantwell would be an easier target. She doesn't have the same soft, fuzzy reputation as the "Mom in Tennis Shoes". And unlike Murray, who staked out a place for herself in this election as an earmarks champion, Cantwell doesn't quite have the reputation of bringing home the bacon. On the other hand, since Rossi couldn't win in a year favoring Republicans, how can he hope to succeed in a statewide race when President Obama is on top of the ticket?
Rossi resides in Sammamish, part of fellow Republican Dave Reichert's Eighth Congressional District. Hypothetically, if Reichert decided to run against Cantwell or leave office for any reason, Rossi could fill the void.
A fourth option, albeit a wild-card in a deck of jokers, could be Congressional redistricting. Washington state is likely due one more seat, and a reshuffling of district boundaries could leave Rossi in the First, Eighth or an entirely new district.
"The Washington state GOP just doesn't have a deep bench," says Kirby Wilbur, a former conservative talk show host on 570 KVI who is running for Washington State Republican Party Chair.
Wilbur said that with his name recognition and fundraising ability, Rossi can be a legitimate candidate for any office he chooses to run for. In six months, he raised more than $7 million in contributions. Even during the 2008 Presidential election, where Republicans got hammered across the country, Rossi still picked up 47 percent of the vote. By comparison, the McCain/Palin ticket garnered 40 percent.
The trouble is, Rossi is one of the most divisive figures in the state. He has the same polarizing effect as a Sarah Palin or a Hillary Clinton. You either love or hate the guy. There isn't much middle ground.
Even before he decided to run for office, Rossi was the subject of a Democratic smear campaign that at times verged on libel, including an accusation that he was a business associate with disgraced local real-estate tycoon Michael Mastro. (Rossi is a principal at Coast Equity Partners, an Everett-based commercial real-estate firm.)
Many of his supporters have done him no favors, either. For six years, the cry has been that King County Elections "stole" the 2004 race. This issue is red meat for Republicans, and many simply can't let go. What was demonstrable incompetence and negligence on the part of King County Elections staff has since been conflated to a grand conspiracy, where Cook County-style hoodlums are printing off ballots at Kinkos by the ream. Whereas in actuality, Rossi and Co. were out-lawyered in court and out-maneuvered on county canvassing boards.
The issue has become political poison, and it has driven away many of the so-called "Dinocrats" who voted for him. For two election cycles now, Rossi has practically begged supporters to forget about 2004, to no avail. The Recount is an issue that is going to forever follow Rossi.
At the moment, perhaps the only position available to Rossi will be as a sort of elder statesman for his party. This role is currently being held by former Governor Dan Evans and Senator Slade Gorton, a pair of Nelson Rockefeller-era Republicans whom many modern conservatives find irksome.
It's a role that would require a change in tactics for Rossi. After his second defeat in 2008 he, self-admittedly, went off the political radar screen in order to focus on his business and family. What's lacking in the state has been that conservative Republican majordomo who'll be on deck to talk to the cameras, give interviews, write op-eds and champion the cause of a smaller, fiscally sound government.
It's not the Governor's Mansion, and it's not a fancy office back in D.C. But it's Rossi's for the asking.