The Senate race in Washington state – and by extension the balance of power in the Senate in Washington D.C. – could hinge on whether voters in the Evergreen State think earmarks are a good thing or not.
Sen. Patty Murray, the incumbent Democrat seeking her fourth term, is basing her appeal to voters on her ability to bring home the bacon. The pork pitch has usually worked in the past, but as outspoken former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson has made a habit of saying, “The pig is dead.”
Polling shows the race in a dead heat, and Democrats in Washington D.C. are “worried,” one senior operative said. Washington is the most likely place where Democrats’ hopes of retaining the Senate majority will fall or stand.
But Murray is hoping that enough voters will decide that spending is still sexy, at least when it’s on their behalf. One of her campaign videos features a rock soundtrack accompanying these words on screen: “Murray secures gang prevention funding for Yakima County … she secured $44 million to repair the Howard Hanson Dam.”
Several Washington newspapers have made the case forcefully in recent days that Murray should be given a fourth term precisely because she is, in the words of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “a work horse.”
“The truth about Murray is she delivers for Washington and the Northwest,” wrote the Seattle Times, ticking off a list of projects around the state that Murray – who turned 60 on Monday and has been in the Senate for 18 years – has secured federal funding for.
But Republican Dino Rossi, who turns 51 Friday, is hoping that voter anger over federal spending – and the nation’s growing problem with budget deficits and debt – will trump what has traditionally been Murray’s built-in advantage.
“She’s increased our national debt by trillions, and now she wants to raise taxes to help pay for it. We just can’t afford six more years of Patty Murray,” says a recent ad attacking Murray, paid for by Crossroads GPS, an independent conservative group.
Washington is a liberal state, and has not voted for a Republican president since Ronald Reagan. Murray garnered 670,284 votes in the Aug. 17 open primary (Washington scrapped political parties a few years ago) to Rossi’s 483,305.
“The state historically has been a more populist and progressive state. I think those traditions still carry forward to today,” said Peter May, chair of the political science department at the University of Washington.
But Rossi’s vote total would have likely been higher by about 185,000 votes if conservative Tea Party candidate Clint Didier had not received that many votes in the primary. Didier’s voters would have put Rossi just about equal with Murray.
Polling data is mixed. A survey released Tuesday by Pulse Opinion Research for Fox News – which gave Rossi a one point lead overall – found that 35 percent of those polled said Congress’ top priority should be “spending to create jobs,” while 33 percent said “reducing the budget deficit.” Rossi’s negatives were also high in the poll, at 49 percent.
But there are also signs that the national mood, and President Obama, are a drag on Murray. In the same poll, 45 percent said their ballot would be a vote “to express opposition to Obama administration policies.” Obama’s approval ratings have slipped by several points since the summer, with his approval around 45 percent as it is throughout most of the country. And approval for Murray has gone down simultaneously.
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