GOP’s Road to 51: Washington State

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This is the second of a series of articles looking at the races most likely to determine whether Republicans capture or Democrats hold the majority in the U.S. Senate after Election Day.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dino Rossi is familiar with close elections.

In 2004, he lost an election for governor of Washington to then-state attorney general Christine Gregoire by 133 votes out of more than 2.8 million cast.  He was ahead after the original count.  He was ahead after the first recount.  On the final recount, Gregoire was declared the winner, and Republican Party attempts to challenge the results were tossed out.

In a rematch four years later, he fell short by less than 200,000 votes out of more than 3 million cast in a brutal year for Republicans.

He’s back again … this time taking on Democratic incumbent Patty Murray for her seat in the U.S. Senate.  And the race is, not surprisingly, extremely close.  He’s down by less than a point in the Real Clear Politics polling average, but an Oct. 6 Rasmussen poll had Rossi up by three points and political handicapper Charlie Cook rates the race a “Toss Up.”

Can the third time be the charm for Rossi?  It depends on a number of factors — some under his control, some not.

Republicans could gain some momentum thanks to the state’s persistently sluggish economy. Voters aren’t thrilled with lawmakers’ continued mismanagement of the state budget, and Democrats control both houses of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.  Many have become impatient with waiting for the Obama administration’s economic “fixes” to bear fruit and the state has a reputation as a high-tax, business-unfriendly destination.

Moreover, there are two initiatives on the ballot — one to enact a state income tax on high earners ($200,000 or more) and another to strengthen a requirement that supermajorities approve all tax increases — that could motivate conservative voters to turn out (to block one and support the other).

At the same time, more than a fifth of the state’s 3.5 million active registered voters reside in King County, home to Seattle, lattes and overwhelming liberal political sentiments.  For Rossi to win, he must run up big advantages in the more conservative eastern end of the state and somehow cut into the margins Murray is certain to enjoy in King County and in Pierce County to the south, which includes Tacoma.

FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver pegs Rossi’s chances of winning at a modest 28.7 percent, according to an Oct. 7 modeling, but the underlying poll data show the race as a statistical dead heat.  Barring some significant shifts in other states, the GOP needs a Rossi victory to assemble the 10-seat pickup needed to capture the Senate majority.  Rossi is not a Tea Party candidate, but he has received significant backing from Crossroads GPS, one of the groups headed by former Bush White House chief of staff Karl Rove.  Washington is not Idaho, where a more strident brand of conservatism has enjoyed significant success, and Rossi seems to understand this.

For now, Rossi’s task is to continue the tenacious campaigning throughout the mail-in window, throw in some cash for advertising and hope for the best.  And just for good measure, he probably should put some election lawyers on his speed dial list.

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are the co-founders of ProjectVirginia and CivicForumPAC, and the co-creators of TurnNevadaRed.com.