In Washington, Tuesday's Biggest Winner Wasn't Even on the Ballot

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Don't know about you, but I plan to get thoroughly blazed at a gay wedding sometime in the not-too-distant future.

A political earthquake shook our state on Tuesday, as a majority of Washington voters seized the opportunity to vote in favor of recreational use of marijuana, gave the thumbs-up to same-sex marriage, and re-elected a biracial president.

Like Maryland and Maine, we approved gay marriage (Minnesota, thanks in part to Vikings punter Chris Kluwe's efforts, rejected a legislative effort to ban it). Like Colorado (but not Oregon), we legalized pot.

In two politically historic, culturally meaningful ways, we are now a beacon for the rest of the country, and that's truly something in which to take pride.

Yet there's a credible argument to be made that this state's biggest winner on Election Day wasn't even on the ballot: Washington's senior Senator, Patty Murray.

Twenty years after she embodied the "Year of the Woman" by being elected this state's first female senator, Murray, in her role as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chair, orchestrated a stunning series of victories in races across the country, boosting the number of Senate Democrats to 53. That's 55 in practical terms, when you include two independents, Vermont's Bernie Sanders and Maine's Angus King, who are likely to caucus with the Democrats. The overall gain of two seats helped increase the number of women in the Senate to 20, 16 of them Democrats, both all-time highs.

Just two years ago, after a Tea Party-led Republican wave took back the House of Representatives and cut the Democratic advantage in the Senate from 16 (57-41) to four (51-47), the widespread belief was that the GOP would complete its congressional takeover in 2012, with Democrats having to defend 21 of 33 seats. Democratic retirements in six states--Hawaii, Nebraska, New Mexico, Virginia, Wisconsin, and North Dakota--made the party's chances of retaining its majority doubtful at best.

Only one senator was willing to take on that thankless task. That was Patty Murray, who had first served as DSCC chair a decade earlier, when the Democrats lost three seats--including that of Minnesota's liberal icon Paul Wellstone, who was killed, along with this wife and daughter, in a plane crash less than two weeks before the election--along with their slim Senate majority.

This time around, Murray did a strong job of candidate recruitment, convincing elected officials nationwide to give up safe seats in order to run for the Senate, and was a tireless, effective fundraiser. Her efforts were made easier by Republican retirements in Arizona, Maine, Nevada, and Texas, the Tea Party-engineered defeat of Indiana's Richard Lugar in the Republican primary, and the self-inflicted wounds incurred by GOP nominees in Missouri and Indiana when they revealed their misogynistic attitudes concerning women and rape, beliefs anchored in their vehement anti-choice positions.

The seeds sown by Murray and her staff over the past two years bloomed on Tuesday night, as Democrats won nine of the 11 most competitive Senate races, increased their margin, and welcomed four new women--including the first openly gay senator, Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin, and a political superstar in the making, Massachusetts' Elizabeth Warren--to the Senate. With North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, Hawaii's Mazie Hirono, and Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer, the Senate's Class of 2013 is one-third female--11 out of 33, the most women ever in a single class.

It's now more likely that Murray, who was elected to her fourth term two years ago and is relatively young at 62, will run for a fifth term in 2016, given the likelihood of a continuing Democratic majority. It also boosts her clout, which already was considerable--the former "Mom in Tennis Shoes" and Shoreline school-board member is the fourth-ranking Democrat, chairs the Veterans' Affairs Committee and two subcommittees (including Appropriations' all-important Transportation, Housing and Urban Development), and now can take significant credit for the presence in D.C. of her party's eight new senators.

And if Murray decides that 24 years in the Senate is enough, she can point to an impressively unlikely accomplishment that bookends her initial splash onto the national scene, offers redemption for 2002's disappointments, and establishes a lasting political legacy on her side of the aisle.

Underestimating Patty Murray used to be de rigueur among her political opposition and much of the punditry. National Republican Senatorial Committee chair John Cornyn of Texas, Murray's counterpart in this election cycle, may have made the same error in judgment. Once again, she proved what a critical mistake that can be.

 
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