Jul 08 2006

Senate race in rebalance

Published by at 5:12 pm under Washington

The contest for the Senate in Washington has gone through three distinct phases so far. The key question political Washingtonians must now ask themselves is this: Will there be a fourth?

Maria CantwellMaria Cantwell, the Democratic incumbent, has to hope so. And there are some indications it could be happening. But the jury’s out, and at the moment the Evergreen State’s junior Senate seat hangs gently in the balance.

Mike McGavickA year ago, pre-McGavick, there was some sense that things might not go smoothly for Cantwell. While it was true that her Democratic colleague Patty Murray had just decisively beat back a strong Republican challenger, Cantwell’s polling numbers had consistently trailed Murray’s. While she was able in 2000 to self-fund her campaign, she’d have to raise her own money this time after the dot-com bubble burst carried away much of her stash. A lot of Washingtonians had at that point sympathy for Republicans who had so closely lost the race for governor. And so on.

But – and here the second phase set in – conditions turned. After early prospects bailed, Republicans actually collected a candidate in McGavick, but McGavick seemed unable to pick up significant personal traction, and his fundraising was weak, a big surprise given his background as a corporate CEO. At the same time, Cantwell turned into a fundraising machine, drastically outraising him (and the most current reports still say she has outraised McGavick by a factor of three to four). President George W. Bush and the Republican-led Congress tanked in the polls nationally and even worse in Washington. Cantwell made headlines with a string of wins popular back home, on subjects including Enron corruption and oil tanker protection. She was on a roll.

Then – phase three – the roll seemed to slow, and stop.

McGavick seemed undaunted by the difficulty and – showing that the deck is hardly every completely stacked in electoral politics – forged ahead and picked up speed. He went ever more public on a variety of issues. Cantwell, on the other hand, seemed to quiet down (yes, there’ve been press releases but not with the same kind of impact), while she absorbed and seemed to try to deal with a rebellion (anti-war based) in her own party. That kept her and other Democrats well distracted from the groundwork McGavick was starting to lay down. Part of that was a smart decision to take to the road around the state in a van and hold “Open Mike” meetings with whoever chose to show up. That contrasted with Cantwell’s relative invisibility so far this summer. And McGavick has used his platform to redefine Cantwell as part of the problem in unpopular Washington (and largely managing to avoiding identification with the Republican Party that has been pretty much controlling events in D.C.).

The criticism and the steady work by the opposition took its toll on Cantwell. As noted here three weeks ago, “her lead has been diminishing, steadily, since January, from 15% then, to 13% in March, to 8% in April and 5% in May. About the only consolation is that the race may not be tightening quite as fast as it was.” And polling of her favorability started placing her below the 50% mark, a danger for any incumbent.

There has been more since, aptly summed up in Joel Connelly’s latest Seattle Post-Intelligencer column: “Republicans have learned to use the dog days as a time to “define” both themselves and their opponents, a key step for later harvesting votes. And that may be happening out here on the Left Coast.” McGavick, he wrote, is “already moving to occupy the high ground.”

Such is the dynamic in phase three.

It could stay this way. McGavick probably is not in a lead yet, but he’s doing a good job of building toward one. If Cantwell continues not to engage fully on the ground – if she thinks her campaign cash and general Republican unpopularity will be enough – then she could lose.

So what indications of a new phase are there?

For one, things like the Connelly column. The Cantwell campaign has started to receive a series of slaps in the face and serious warnings that, while it hasn’t lost yet, it is in trouble and needs a change of direction. Just such changes periodically do come to political campaigns in situations like this. (The 1974 Idaho Senate campaign between Democratic incumbent Frank Church and Republican Bob Smith was one; Church was cruisng for a loss until his wife and others realized they were in danger and kicked their campaign back into gear.)

For another, the end – we are told – of the Mark Wilson campaign, the challenger bedevilling her from within the Washington Democratic Party. The Wilson campaign was never nearly in a position to deny Cantwell the nomination, but it drawing active support and energy away from it. (And Cantwell couldn’t have been helped within the party by the comparison to that other anti-war challenger to an incumbent Democrat – to Connecticut Senator Joe Liberman, who now seems likely to be denied nomination in his state and may wind up running as an independent. Such a framework did Cantwell no good; now that weight appears to be gone.

Third, there are signs that, in thre last few weeks, Cantwell’s schedule has hit the ground to a greater degree – a change, at least.

And fourth, Cantwell has a good new issue to ride in the close-balance high-tech suburbs: net neutrality. In the last couple of weeks she has seemed to be pushing it hard (the petition drive was a very nice touch), and if explained well in the months to come it could prove a winner and put McGavick on the spot. So far, Democrats haven’t shown much sense in the types of attacks to launch at McGavick; if they nationalize the race and remind voters who’s in charge in other Washington, McGavick could be in trouble.

None of these four factors have decisively turned a new corner for the race, so far at least. But the guess here is that Cantwell’s gradual slide may be bottoming out.

So where that leaves us is is an exciting four months to come.

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One Response to “Senate race in rebalance”

  1. Treefrogon 10 Jul 2006 at 12:23 pm

    Mother was born in what is now Lakewood in 1925. She recounts that [at least in her teenage years], there used to be a streetcar from Tacoma to American Lake Park.

    My, my, how our people transport systems have progressed.

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