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.
NEXT: Murray overplaying her hand with aggressive attack ads
Murray has also been hurt by overplaying her hand with aggressive attack ads against Rossi that were deemed to be misleading. The Tacoma News Tribune last week detailed the mischaracterizations of Rossi’s positions in the ads and called on Murray to “knock it off.”
The News Tribune endorsed Murray on Sunday despite what it said was her “dirty campaigning.” The Post-Intelligencer also mentioned Murray’s ads in their endorsement of her, saying they had “one qualification” to stating their support for her.
“The senator should do some housecleaning: The Murray staff needs rejuvenation. Murray has not been well served by a negative campaign,” the paper said.
And the Seattle Times has written a series of articles detailing how at least 17 former Murray staffers have moved to the lobbying sector and been able to land millions of dollars in earmarks for clients, enriching themselves in the process.
The Murray campaign has sought to portray Rossi, who has run for governor twice in the state, as an obstructionist and Wall Street crony for opposing the financial regulation legislation, and have implied he won’t be able to deliver for the state the same way that Murray has. They’ve also attacked his minority ownership stake in a bank that has attracted the attention of federal regulators
“Media in the Northwest is overwhelmingly calling out Mr. Rossi’s no solution, just-say-no campaign, and [is] recognizing the strong record of Senator Murray,” said Murray spokeswoman Julie Edwards. “This election will come down to one question: who is on the side of Washington state? On issue after issue, that is Senator Murray.”
Rossi’s argument is that Murray has been in the nation’s capital for too long and has become part of the problem. He told a group of voters recently that if a state project is important enough to receive federal funds, “it’s worth doing in the main budget.”
Edwards told a local newspaper that Rossi was mischaracterizing the earmark process to make it seem like a secretive procedure when it is not.
Nonetheless, Democrats are anxious about the race.
“Folks are worried about it,” said a veteran Democratic operative in Washington. “The amount of outside money going in, it’s hard. With the kind of money being spent, I think we’re going to see a lot of places where you just can’t overcome that, quite frankly.”
Rossi will indeed have plenty of money over the home stretch to make sure he is front and center with voters on the air.
Obama himself is coming to Washington on Oct. 21 to campaign with Murray and help her raise money.