Probably got started with a perfectly reasonable idea: A form has been received by a group of people; one person well-experienced in filling it out passes his finished version around, to show how the task might be handled. A template, meant to be used as guidance for dealing with the matter at hand.

Not with the idea that every word be plagarized.

So the Oregonian story today about the House Republican caucus members who wound up submitting word-for-word same answers on the paper’s candidate questionnaire raises a string of issues. That the filled-out form by Representative Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, was sent around to the others, isn’t an issue; it might simply have shown some useful ways to address whatever was asked. But what does the direct copying by some of his fellow caucus members (all of which would be sent to the same people) say about the members’ capacity for or willingness to exercise independent thought? Among other things.

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The talk is of a man who’s filed lawsuit after lawsuit and, some of his critics say, is making – with his attorneys – a cottage industry out of it. He’s certainly been awarded substantial sums of money. All of which in these days of frivolous lawsuits reasonably sounds suspicious, except for two things:

First, he’s been winning.

Second, his lawsuits have been performing a public service.

The man is David Koenig, a construction worker from Federal Way. As a story in the Tacoma News Tribune outlines today, it all started about a decade ago when a family member was sexually assaulted, and he asked the city of Des Moines for public records – and they were clearly public – related to that incident. He was denied. (There was, we should note, an issue here about whether the form of his request in effect identified the otherwise unnamed victim in a sexual assault.) He took his case to the Washington Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor, and ordered Des Moines to pay his (and his lawyers) $83,000.

Koenig has been after public records ever since. The small town of Buckley paid him $22,700 in another law enforcement records case; the larger city of Tukwila paid $27,000; and now still larger Lakewood in Pierce County has been dinged $40,000 – all for refusing to turn over public records. (Keonig says he’s using the part of his intake that doesn’t go to attorneys to pursue additional public records cases.)

A number of local government officials, naturally, are up in arms, and one can imagine seminars at local government association meetings about how to avoid similar judgments. We can cut to that chase right here: Unless you have a clear-cut no-question exemption in state or federal law and can point to it immediately, turn over the damn records.

Sooner or later, the taxpayers of Lakewood, Des Moines, Buckley, Tukwila and other jurisdictions likely will get the point. When they do, the questions they put to their officials may be more pointed than Koenig’s.

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Kate Brown

Kate Brown

The three main Democratic candidates for Oregon secretary of state have a lot in common: All veteran state senators, all from larger urban areas, all more or less centrist within their caucus, all in various ways highly knowledgeable, with some inclination to deliver an essay’s worth of detailed response to even fairly narrow questions. The three are very distinct anyway, maybe most especially in the way they see the office and how they might address it.

We’ve written here before about two of the contenders, Vicki Walker of Eugene and Rick Metsger of Welches. This morning we participated in a blogger call with Kate Brown, until recently the Senate majority leader, still the top fundraiser and probably (though debatably) the front-runner among the three. If Walker’s stance is as a tough populist auditor and guardian, and Metsger’s is more attuned to economic development alongside linking stat government to people on the ground, Brown’s take seems to be something else again.

She sounds more directly focused, for example, on elections management (which has been one of her central issues as a legislator). Among three priorities she cited for the office, two were elections-related: integrity in the initiative system, enhancing voter registration, and picking up steam on performance audits of state agencies.

One of the few specific distinctions from her opponents she offered (she didn’t specifically bring up their names at all) is that she was the only one of the three with direct experience in legislative reapportionment. (The secretary of state remaps legislative districts if the legislature is unable to reach a conclusion on it; just that happened at the beginning of this decade.)

She spoke on something else too in the election field that could be a significant factor in years to come, as the electorate becomes increasingly wired into the political system – a “tension between direct and representative democracy.” She even suggested that “the challenge for representative democracy [as in state legislatures] is remaining relevant.” Her take seems to be that initiatives and other direct ballot efforts may become increasingly powerful as time goes on, and the legislature could merge some of its activities with that, such as putting state budget proposals on line and soliciting voter responses to it. At the same time, she suggested steps could be taken to put ballot issues through something more of a vetting process, so fewer of them are tossed out by courts after being passed by voters.

In all, it’s an intriguing vision of where politics and governing may be headed.

Her campaign doesn’t seem totally focused on any of that. It has out three videos with the theme, “What can Brown do for you?” They suggest an active and responsive legislator, but only to a limited degree the work of a secretary of state.

She’s obviously given it plenty of thought, though. And, like her two competitors, reaching some intriguing answers. The primary winner will have some useful material to cherry-pick from the others after the May election is over.

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We’ve generally been mostly positively impressed by the move over the last decade of so many congressional offices across the region from federal buildings to private office buildings.

There have been some real pluses. As an internal matter, those federal buildings were often tight for space and had poor electric, telecom and other resource access, so the new spaces were usually a big improvement for the staffs and for efficiency. From the public’s standpoint, as the Idaho Falls Post-Register‘s Marty Trillhaase writes in an editorial today (the article is behind a pay wall), the federal offices were often “security-ridden” – constituents seeking help from their congressional offices would often be treated like prospective terrorists, and neither the constituents nor members of Congress much liked that.

There is a potential glitch, though, in using private property: The property owner does have a right to set terms and conditions for use of the property. In Idaho Falls, where Senators Larry Craig and Mike Crapo and Representative Mike Simpson have offices, that building is owned by a fellow Republican, attorney Blake Hall. When Iraq war protesters sought to carry their message to their members of Congress, and picketed their offices (all three have been strong war supporters), Blake ordered them evicted.

Trillhaase: “However anomalous Tuesday’s episode, it has exposed a precedent. What happens the next time a landlord decides to block people protesting immigration policies or salmon restoration, for instance, from petitioning the congressional offices in his building?”

Simpson and Crapo are reported to be reviewing the situation with Hall, and Simpson particularly seems to get the point, saying that either his offices are open to the public (including protesters) or “I will begin considering my options for alternative office space.”

The point to draw the line seems clear enough. It doesn’t really lie with property owners like Hall. Rather, government agencies should operate under rules which require that any space leases they execute must allow for free public access, period. As open as the federal buildings used to be.

BY THE WAY If you know anything about how thoroughly connected to Idaho Republican politics Blake Hall is, you have recognize how uncommonly cozy this particular lease arrangement looks.

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The Mountain Goat Report has put together a succinct rundown of the primary contributors to Idaho Republican Representative Bill Sali (the leading subject of observation by that well-crafted blog).

In looking at a list like this, something of a middling view is required. It isn’t a list of buyers of votes; specific quid pro quos (which would amount to bribery) are unusual, and there’s reason to suspect that here. On the other hand, PR explanations that these contributions are simply a support of good government are, yes, as ridiculous as they sound. Think of these endorsements instead as a sort of free-floating investment, a loose expectation that the recipient (partly because of the largesse and partly for other reasons) is likely to be amenable more often than not to what the contributor may need.

So the question worth asking is, in this case, what might such contributors as Washington Group International, the American Bankers Association and the National Rifle Association (and smaller contributors as R.J. Reynolds and Halliburton) – all these through their PACs, of course – might be asking of Representative Sali, that maybe a different representative might be less inclined to support. And their other donation recipients.

We’ll be spotlighting some more of these contribution lists later. For now, Mountain Goat’s makes good review.

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What jumped out first from the new SurveyUSA poll on Oregon’s 5th U.S. House district is the undecideds, and the disparity between those on the Republican and Democratic sides.

Among the Republicans, the bulk of voters (according to the results) seem to have made of their minds, not that the race seems yet settled as a result. The main candidates are 2006 Republican nominee Mike Erickson and former legislator (and former gubernatorial candidate) Kevin Mannix; this first run shows them at 44% and 40% respectively, with 17% undecided.

Is that an indication that, among Republicans at least, the two are well-known? That Mannix – a major statewide figure on the ballot for major office for years – would be makes sense. But did Erickson really become that well known off his 2006 TV ads for the House seat? Who knows; maybe he did. There’s been a presumption that the nomination here is highly likely to go to Mannix, but maybe (especially bearing in mind the short run from here to voting) that assumption has been unwarranted.

On the Democratic side, the situation is a little different: The voters don’t seem to know who these guys are. The main contenders are state Senator Kurt Schrader of Canby (who ought to be fairly well-known in the Clackamas part of the district) and former governor’s chief of staff Steve Marks, who has some good ties but logically isn’t a known quantity at large. Support for them ws noted at 23% and 20% respectively, suggesting they’re starting almost from similar points, and the race is up for grabs. That the race is open, though, should be clear from the 57% who said they’re undecided: That’s a big portion of voters who have no idea who these candidates are.

Shall we say there are no foregone conclusions in the 5th?

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Jim Dunn

Jim Dunn

Toss this one near the top of the list of most contentious Washington state House seats this cycle: District 17, the seat now held by Republican Jim Dunn, R-Battle Ground.

There was some talk that Dunn might not run again, which might have changed the character of the contest this year. But word now is that he is running, so things are getting interesting.

Dunn isn’t a newcomer; he’s been a state rep from the rural Clark County area (including some of the Vancouver area) since 1996, apart from a term out in 2002-03. He lost in 2002, and his margins have been less than impressive overall; his races have been much more competitive than those of the typical incumbent. And that was before late last year. The Washington House Republican caucus had just been reeling over difficulties including a resignation and preceding scandal, at which point Dunn made remarks to a female Republican staffer considered so inappropriate that his fellow Republicans took away his committee assignments and cut his expenses. Those remarks were, apparently, not considered entirely unusual, either; presumably, most of the Republican caucus would rather see another Republican replace him.

And that might happen, but there are questions and issues.

Another Republican, Joseph James, has entered the race (possibly hoping that Dunn would opt out), and has been at work: Among other things, reporting campaign fundraising of $74,000, considerably more than either Dunn or the Democrat in the race, Tim Propst. However, Chris Mulick at the Tri-City Herald reports some unusual aspects to that large number: “Since January he’s counted about $3,000 a month as an in-kind donation from himself for use of personal space for a campaign office and another $700 a month for use of a personal vehicle. He’s also listed lots of other in-kind contributions from himself for things such as gas and meals. The Public Disclosure Commission database doesn’t appear to be quite caught up with incoming reports yet but it appears only a bit more than half of James’ total contributions have been cash donations. James has filed two summary reports recently and I can’t tell which one is current. But either way it appears he has less than $10,000 on hand.”

So how does he fare against a well-known Dunn in the primary? Or against Probst (we’ve met him, and he appears to be an energetic and presentable candidate) in the fall? This race is very much up in the air.

SEE ALSO an additional review of James’ background at this Clark County political site.

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Financial shifts, and even reversals, sometimes can hold more than one interpretation. Shifts in funding streams and debt repayment can just relate to changes in business conditions; even bankruptcy can simply be a tool used toward rebuilding a troubled business into a sounder one (which happened at one point with the business that used to be Morrison-Knudsen at Boise). So we’ve held off saying much, not being pricy to the inner workings.

The news today that Tamarack Resort is shutting down its Boise operations – substantial, since about 20 employees are directly affected – is another matter. We’re seeing here an unambiguous indicator of serious trouble.

For more on the developing attitudes, check out the Idaho Statesman‘s comment section on this.

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This sort of thing can happen easily enough anywhere, and you have to give Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa credit for stepping up, declining to prevaricate and declaring simply: “We got conned.”

That was done by a federal prison inmate in Texas named Keith Russell Judd, who filed a notorized form and $1,000 to secure a place on the Idaho ballot – for president, on the Democratic side.

It doesn’t matter practically much, as Ysura pointed out: Idaho Democrats register their choice for president by caucus, and the primary vote will be irrelevant anyway.

But maybe this does help make the case for a suggestion we’ve mulled for some years: Require that all candidates for the ballot have to submit at least some reasonable number of petition signatures along with the declaration form and filing fee. Might cut down on the number of California residents (see the ballot in the 1st district) and prison inmates hitting the Idaho ballot. As a news story on the Judd case said, “A key reason Judd was able to make the ballot was a recent change in state election law that eliminated a requirement under which he would have had to get signatures from more than 3,000 Idaho citizens.”

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Taken generally, there wasn’t a lot of news out of the one televised Oregon Senate primary debate tonight – excepting a reference to a primary winner endorsement (more on that below). But it did offer a few indicators, just a couple of weeks or so out from the start of balloting. (The debate, we should note, was sponsored by KGW-TV and the Oregonian.)

There are four candidates in the Democratic primary; three were present this evening – House Speaker Jeff Merkley, Portland activist Steve Novick and Eugene realtor Candy Neville. Neville presumably was there largely on the strength of a recent poll showing her in a close second place to Novick, with Merkley trailing distantly. That result feels like an outlier, and the larger probability is that Merkley and Novick are in a fairly close race. But Neville’s passion for certain subjects, primarily Iraq and veterans, came through as in earlier encounters.

She seemed nervous going in; in the first half of the program her answers were halting, and she blew at least one question (on bringing legislative bacon back to Oregon) completely. But she toughened as she went. Merkley seemed cautious and stiff at first, loosening up as he went. Novick was his usual blunt self and came across effectively throughout (his gift for converting wonkish data into plain speech was fully in evidence), though he seemed to exercise a little more caution tonight than on some earlier occasions when his sharp tongue caused him grief (as on bloggers and some other subjects).

Their issues answers were, overall, strikingly similar. (Just one question seemed to elicit genuinely distinct answers, a query on the proposed Cascade Locks casino: Neville was generally in favor, Novick leaned against, and Merkley wasn’t sure).

And there was little attack mode. About halfway through, Merkley brought up some Novick snark against Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and others, but that was about the only explicit direct shot fired. (There were some subtle shots back and forth, here and there.)

The most striking moment, though, was a reconciliatory note. A few days back, Novick was quoted after one encounter as suggesting he thought more highly of independent Senate candidate John Frohnmayer than he did of Merkley, that he “would be a better senator than Jeff Merkley” (although he did say he would endorse Merkley if he were the Democratic nominee). The resulting storm among Democrats may have given Novick pause. Tonight, he went somewhat out of his way not only to specifically throw his support to the Democratic nominee but also to encourage Frohnmayer to drop out of the race, and his supporters to back the Democrat. It felt like a sharp pivot, and it’s not hard to imagine the reasons.

No great excitement or news. But suggestive of a race that’s highly competitive as the final lap approaches.

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John Kitzhaber

John Kitzhaber

The doctor was in today at McMinnville: John Kitzhaber, physician, former governor and current medical system activist, had diagnosis and a fair amount of prescription. And it put the rest of the health care talk and activity – by the presidential candidates and within Oregon’s government – in some perspective.

Kitzhaber, now on the road a lot spreading his message well beyond Oregon as well as occasionally inside, leads the Archimedes Movement, aimed at sweeping, systemic health care reform. His take (which we don’t entirely share) is that the new Healthy Oregon program recently underway, and proposals by presidential candidates (presumably mainly the two Democrats, though he didn’t get into a lot of detail on this) are useful in terms of getting people into the system, covered by some sort of insurance, but that’s a limited benefit. Kitzhaber’s focus, on the other hand, is on changing the system fundamentally.

His presentation makes a case hard to argue with – and most people probably would implicitly recognize most of it as true. Of the factors contributing to a person’s health, he points out, only about 10% is health care – the rest has to do with things such as a person’s inherited biology, environment and manner of living. Those factors are little addressed in health care, he notes. He points out too that an overwhelming portion of the costs in the health care system is spent in treating people with chronic conditions (such as diabetes, circulatory disorders and others); but all the system’s financial incentives are aimed at treating acute conditions. There’s no financial incentive to treat conditions and health factors while they’re small-scale, easy to handle and inexpensive; the real money only comes into play when they become massive and life threatening. You’ll search in vain, he points out, for new and expensive substance abuse or obesity treatment wings at hospitals, while heart wings and cancer centers are everywhere. “The system is set up to reward acute cases,” he said.

On top of that, the system is horribly inefficient in other ways, notably the lack of automation which keeps doctors from sharing patient information, and makes information handling enormously more expensive and drives up error rates.

Looked at this way, a picture of the system as it ought to be begins to move into focus: A realignment of incentives and efficiencies.

Our impression, from watching the development in Healthy Oregon (which Kitzhaber endorsed, and approves as far as it goes), is that it does start to move in some of these directions, and pieces of the Clinton and Obama plans do too.

But Kitzhaber’s unique contribution may be in the way he thinks about health care wholly and systematically. If universal health care coverage of some sort really does materialize in the next couple of years, that could be step one in making more sense of the system. Some of where Kitzhaber is going may be step two.

A side note: Kitzhaber has lost none of his flair as a speaker, and someone encountering him for the first time now would have no trouble imagining how he became a two-term governor still popular even as he declared Oregon to be ungovernable. If he chose, he’d still be the strongest political campaigner in the state. Not that he gave the slightest signal of any interest in a return to that arena.

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Question arose in comments a couple of days ago which suggests something more than a quick reply: “I’d just be interested in any history you have on the chances of a challenger beating a weak incumbent in a rematch (as a Grant-Sali race would have been) versus a new candidate taking out the incumbent.”

That had to do with a post on the 1st district U.S. House race, where the Democratic field shrunk from two candidates to one. The departed was Larry Grant, who ran against Republican Bill Sali two years ago and was hoping for a rematch. Still standing, and now the presumptive Democratic nominee, is Walt Minnick, who has not run for this office before but did run for U.S. Senate in 1996.

The question breaks into two parts, one having to do with beating incumbents, the other concerning whether rerunners might be better positioned to do it.

It’s hard to get scientific about this because the data is pretty small – in most places around the country in recent years, and certainly in Idaho. The reality is that not many incumbents lose anymore, either in primary or general elections. Some do, as a number of Republican U.S. House members found out in 2006 (or Democrats in 1994). But it’s unusual.

The most recent defeat of an incumbent partisan officeholder in Idaho above the legislative level was in 2002, in a Republican primary, of Lieutenant Governor Jack Riggs by Jim Risch, who still has the job. Before that, you have to go back to 1974 for an in-party (primary) loss, of Republican Orval Hansen to George Hansen, in the 2nd District.

Among partisan (Republican-Democratic) contests in Idaho above the legislative level, the last incumbent loss was in 1998, when Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Anne Fox (brought down by more unbelievably bad headlines than can be recounted here) lost to Democrat Marilyn Howard. Howard is the only Democrat to beat a sitting Republican for major office in Idaho since 1984, when Richard Stallings ousted George Hansen, by then a convicted felon. (That’s over the course of nearly a quarter-century – a point to think about.) The only other incumbent defeats that come to mind over the last third of a century or so (someone please advise if you think of any others) are Republican Helen Chenoweth’s defeat of Democrat Larry LaRocco for the 1st District in 1994, and of course Democratic Senator Frank Church’s loss to Republican Steve Symms in 1980. We might add here that the last governor to be ousted in Idaho was Republican Don Samuelson, by Democrat Cecil Andrus, in 1970. The last lieutenant governor to lose a general election was Democrat Bill Murphy (appointed to the office) by Republican Phil Batt in 1978.

Of those six successful cross-party takeouts – by Howard, Stallings, Chenoweth, Symms, Batt and Andrus (which pretty much covers us for the last 40 years) – two (Stallings and Andrus) were candidates re-running for the office; the others all were taking their first shot at it, though Symms and Batt certainly were experienced candidates by the time of their runs. The more significant point may be that in the cases of Stallings and Andrus, a lot changed in between the first run and the second. In Stallings’ case, he faced an opponent (Hansen) the second time who was brought down by criminal convictions, and even then just barely beat him. Andrus’ case was more complex, but the core of it may have been that Samuelson was widely seen as not up to the job, and that 1970 race too was closer than many people tend to remember.

Have there been many second-runners who have not succeeded the second time around? A fair number, actually, among them Democrat Jerry Brady, running for governor in 2002 and 2006; Dan Williams, Democrat for 1st district in 1996 and 1998; Republican Jim Jones, who lost the Republican primaries in the 2nd district in 1978 and 1980; Democrat Stan Kress, also in the 2nd District, in 1976 and 1978. The most successful recent case we can think of is Republican Tom Luna, who lost for superintendent of public instruction in 2002 but won in 2006 when the seat opened with Howard’s retirement.

Look around the election records of Oregon and Washington and you’ll find the patterns aren’t drastically different. (The last U.S. House member ousted in Oregon was in 1996, and in Washington in 1998 – in a total of 14 seats.) Re-runners do sometimes win (and there are people who’ve lost races for an office three times before winning it). But the obvious advantages of being able to start with more experience and connections and nation ID so forth, often seem to be balanced by the lack of freshness and optimism, and that “loser” frame can be hard to escape (harder, maybe, than if running for a different office next time).

What it really comes down is, taking out an incumbent is hard. Not impossible. But hard. Whatever your track record.

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The chant wasn’t something on the order of, “Go Sonics!” – although, as the Seattle Sonics happened to win last night’s game against the Dallas Mavericks, the crowd was certainly supportive – but rather – “Bennett sucks!”

Bennett being Clay Bennett, leader of the group which owns the Sonics and plans to move the team to Oklahoma City.

We’d guess that before long, someone will launch a new basketball team at Seattle, likely not major league but something professional. The audience for basketball clearly is there; money can be made. Question: Is that good enough? Or is it that the idea of major league, as opposed to basketball, is what’s important here? And if that is, why?

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You have to wonder whether this will be picked up on elsewhere. Maybe it won’t. But that it has happened in a place like Spokane, well . . .

The story is that the Spokane County Republicans, the Spokesman-Review reports, “formally rejected the Iraq policy of their current president and their party’s likely nominee, saying American troops shouldn’t be on overseas missions for more than six months without a formal declaration of war. At a county convention that some party leaders said may have set an attendance record for Republicans in Spokane, supporters of presidential candidate Ron Paul Saturday handily defeated an attempt to scale back the platform’s stringent limitation on using American troops on foreign soil.”

Aha! It’s those Ron Paul people checking in again; and they did show some substantial strength in Spokane during the February caucuses. Still, they had similar strength in a lot of other places around Washington too. And the Iraq battle at the Spokane organization means that although their candidate won’t be a Republican nominee (though they still sent a pile of Paul delegates to the state convention), they may not yet be done in pursuing his agenda.

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Is the Washington governor’s race a big deal? Of course. Is it competitive? The polling generally indicates as much, and – this is a reasonable indicator – both Democratic incumbent Chris Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi are raising piles of money, what could amount to somewhere around $20 million between them by the time it’s over.

But we’ve not felt for a long time that this is an evenly-balanced playing field. Some comments from Goldy at Horse’s Ass outline some (and there are others too) of the pertinent reasons why.

The big difference, in my opinion, will be the lessons learned from 2004, a race in which an overconfident Gregoire allowed Rossi to get away with running as an amiable tabla rasa, on to which voters could project a fanciful image of the Rossi they’d like him to be.

First rule of political campaigning: . . . define your opponent. And you can be damn sure that a substantial chunk of Gregoire’s (and her surrogates’) war chest will be spent doing exactly that. Rossi is simply too conservative for WA state, on both social and economic issues, and this time around he’s not going to get away with refusing to talk about issues that don’t poll well for his campaign. There are also character issues regarding Rossi — his dubious business ethics and his documented reputation as a downright mean spirited campaigner — and in 2008, voters are going to be informed of that too.

Since Rossi’s near miss in 2004, David Irons, George Nethercutt and Mike!™ McGavick have all tried to duplicate the Rossi model — a low-key, likable, issue-less run toward the middle — and all with disastrous results. That strategy simply won’t play here anymore… at least not if your Democratic opponent is awake.

Without here passing judgement on the validity of each of the arguments against Rossi, we don’t have a lot of doubt that they’ll be made. And the point about Irons, Nethercutt and McGavick ought to be food for mulling.

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