Video: McGavick versus a vulnerable Democrat

By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 9/6/2006 5:22:22 PM ET 2006-09-06T21:22:22

Fortune is smiling on Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell : there’s no Ned Lamont in the state of Washington.

Like her Democratic colleague, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Cantwell voted to authorize President Bush to use military force in Iraq; like Lieberman, she has rankled many Democrats in her state by continuing to support the Iraq deployment.

But unlike Connecticut, where Lamont beat Lieberman in the Aug. 8 primary, there was no wealthy anti-Iraq war Democrat here who was willing to invest $4 million of his own money to defeat Cantwell in the Sept. 19 primary.

“Boy, if there had been,” Cantwell would have been in jeopardy, said Democratic National Committee member and long-time Washington state Democratic leader Karen Marchioro.

“You could have a fundraiser with all the Microsoft people who must be kicking themselves by not seeing what happened in Connecticut (with Lamont’s defeat of Lieberman). How many people are just saying, ‘why didn’t I think of that?’”

2006 key racesCantwell does have a poorly-financed Democratic primary opponent, Hong Tran, but the senator is expected to win easily and then go on to face Republican candidate Mike McGavick , a former Senate aide and ex-chief executive of the Safeco insurance firm, in the November election.

Despite some grassroots Democratic frustration with Cantwell over Iraq, “people do not want to lose this seat. It’s too scary,” Marchioro said. “People are beginning to figure out that they’re not going to gain anything as far as the war, or anything else” if Cantwell loses to McGavick. “Maria is beginning to pick up here.”

Lukewarm electorate
This state’s electorate has never been passionately fond of Cantwell – she won her seat six years ago by a mere 2,200 votes, or less than one-tenth of one percent.

But she touts her work on battling Enron’s treatment of Washington state utility customers, her pro-environmental protection record and her provision in last year’s energy bill that subsidizes cellulosic ethanol (produced from things such as forestry residues, trees and grasses.)

Some observers have pegged the Cantwell race – and the New Jersey race where Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez faces a credible challenge from Republican Tom Kean Jr. -- as the only two Senate contests out of all 34 this fall where the GOP could take away a Democratic-held seat.

But how good are McGavick’s chances really?

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He seems to have chosen the worst possible year to run in a state which Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry won two years ago by more than 200,000 votes: a year in which the Iraq war and President Bush are unpopular.

Iraq on the ballot
“There’s no question there’s war weariness and the president’s popularity is a challenge,” McGavick acknowledged. “But I don’t think this is a year that’s about Republican versus Democrat. I think this is a year about incumbents: every incumbent will be held to task – ‘Are you a part of solution or a part of the problem back there (in Washington, D.C.)? There’s an overwhelming feeling it is just goofed up back there; I hear that everywhere I go.”

He said most voters do not know who Cantwell is, other than “she’s part of that crowd back there that is making such a mess of things.”

But 82-year old Sen. Daniel Inouye, D- Hawaii, a World War II vet , who has been part of “that crowd back there” in the Senate since 1963, came off a marathon travel schedule (Alaska, China, the Philippines, Japan, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Hawaii) to stop by and tell a crowd of veterans in Tacoma, Wash. last week, “we veterans like strong leaders, we want fighters, we admire courage but we also admire heart – this gal’s got all of it,” Inouye said. “I don’t care what the issue is, because this little gal here is going to bowl you over.”

“Like Stevens,” shouted a member of the audience, referring to Cantwell’s battle with Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens over his proposal to increase the oil tanker traffic in Puget Sound.

“Stevens is a good friend of mine,” replied Inouye. “But he got bowled over.”

McGavick himself takes credit for helping to persuade Stevens to back off from his tanker idea.

A grudge match?
There’s an X factor in the Cantwell-McGavick matchup: Republicans’ craving for revenge after the 2004 gubernatorial election went to Democrat Christine Gregoire following a hotly contested recount.

GOP state chairman Diane Tebelius said last week at a Bellevue, Wash., fundraising breakfast for McGavick, “what is different in this state, what you don’t see elsewhere around the country, is that there’s this continuing anger from the voters over what happened in 2004 – they believe the election was stolen from them. That feeling is translating to this race and people are saying, ‘let’s not let it be stolen again.’ The Republican base is totally energized.”

Dino Rossi, the GOP gubernatorial candidate who lost to Gregoire, said, “within the Republican base, people realize we have to get a high enough threshold (of votes for McGavick) so that King County can’t do a hand recount – which can easily be manufactured into a (Democratic) victory. McGavick has to win by a couple of thousand votes and that’s doable.”

King County, where Seattle is located, is the Democratic stronghold in the state.

Rossi said Republicans need to convince their loyalists in the more conservative parts of the state outside King County that their votes truly matter this year.

The third party factor
Republicans also have high hopes that Libertarian and Green candidates will divert votes from Cantwell. Libertarian Bruce Guthrie supports recognition of same-sex marriages and calls for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq; Green Party candidate Aaron Dixon, urges immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and supports the “counter-recruiting” movement to persuade young people to not join the armed forces.

Asked about President Bush’s statement that “We’re not leaving (Iraq) so long as I’m the president,” Cantwell said, “The American people deserve to have an answer about what our plan is…. what are going to do to resolve these political issues and to make sure the Iraqis are out front in their security at a time when this violence on the rise.”

How about cutting off funds so that Bush can’t keep troops there “as long as I’m the president”? All Cantwell would say on that topic was, “The Congress is going to have to look at all the tools the Congress has.”

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