When President Barack Obama touched down here in Seattle on Tuesday, he came face-to-face with yet one more reminder of the electoral threats facing his Democratic Party in the runup to this fall's midterm elections.
Starring at two Seattle fundraisers Tuesday for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Obama came to the aid of a Democrat who in an ordinary year would likely be cruising toward election to a fourth term in the Senate.
"When this state sent Patty to the Senate, she wasn’t one of these lifelong politicians who wanted the job or the position for a fancy title or a nice office," Obama told the fundraiser at Seattle's Westin hotel. "She was a self-described mom in tennis shoes who was just looking to help a few people solve a few problems. And all these years later, Patty is that same person — except she’s helped a whole lot of people solve a whole lot of big problems."
But with a sickly economy and a somewhat dispirited Democratic base, Murray's re-election no longer appears to be assured.
As in other traditionally Democratic states such as Wisconsin and California, Murray is a three-term Democrat in a perilous race. The latest public poll shows her with just a three percentage point edge over her likely Republican opponent, Dino Rossi. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates Murray's race a tossup.
What may also be making this a race is Rossi's style. "One of the things about him is that his manner is easy-going and moderate," said Seattle-based pollster Stuart Elway, who has conducted voter surveys in the state since 1975.
With a mellow persona and wide name recognition from his two runs for governor, Rossi doesn't come across as agitated or eccentric. Stylistically he's as far away from Kentucky GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul or TV host Glenn Beck as one could be.
A reluctant vote for TARP in 2008
Murray's reluctant vote for the $700 billion rescue of J.P. Morgan and other Wall St. giants has become a central line of attack for Rossi.
The Troubled Asset Relief Program, TARP, has proven toxic this year in Republican primary contests in South Carolina, Utah, and Texas, where pro-TARP lawmakers all lost.
In Missouri, Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan last week opened her television war against Republican former House Whip Roy Blunt by bashing his role in passing TARP.
But in the Washington race it’s the conservative Republican, Rossi, trying to make the liberal Democrat, Murray, into Wall Street’s sweetheart.
A vote to save the system
Murray explains her bailout vote saying “I was at the table when (Federal Reserve chairman Ben) Bernanke and (Treasury Secretary Henry) Paulson came and asked for the money.” She says congressional leaders were told “our entire country will collapse” if large banks didn’t get rescued.
She said she didn’t take Bernanke’s and Paulson’s word for it, but talked to her state’s business leaders; they convinced her that TARP was needed to avert calamity and so the banks “could get loaning again.” But she says, “It didn’t work as well” as she and others had hoped in 2008.
”I come home every week,” Murray said, “I have been shocked at the number of little Main Street businesses I have known all of my life shutting their doors.” She said the credit crunch for small business had destroyed “jobs for my friends and neighbors and people I knew.”
Murray is touting a $30 billion plan to have the Treasury purchase stakes in small banks to encourage them to lend to the Main Street businesses who didn’t get TARP’s billions.
Case in point: Zippy's Java Lounge, the two-employee coffee shop in Everett, Wash., where Murray hosted a discussion with small business owners last week.
Referring to large banks, like the one that turned her down for a loan, Java Lounge owner Marilyn Rosenberg complained to Murray about the Wall Street risk-taking that led to TARP. “It’s just really discouraging” she said, and now “us backing them up” with taxpayer money. “I’m not the large risk,” Rosenberg said.
Rossi scoffs at Murray’s $30 billion loan program as another bailout, “Baby TARP.”
The $30 billion might seem small when compared with the roughly $1.5 trillion combined cost of the stimulus and the TARP.
But this proposed new spending comes after the nonpartisan number crunchers at the Congressional Budget Office issued a report last month warning of increasing chances of “a sudden fiscal crisis” in which the U.S. government would lose its ability to borrow at affordable rates.
“When your own bankers, the Chinese — the last time I checked, they were Communist — tell us ‘you’re spending too much money,’ that tells you you’re on a fiscal cliff, doesn’t it?” Rossi said at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Cowlitz County last week.
“If we don’t have a course correction in this election, we’re going to wake up 24 months from now in a country we don’t recognize,” Rossi said.
Referring to the new federal mandate requiring people to buy health insurance, he asked, “What’s next? Since the government now owns GM, 61 percent, are they going to force us to buy GM cars?”
What voters fear
Murray said, “I don’t hear that fear at all” from voters. “I think the fear is rather that people won’t have a home that’s valuable and a job they can go to, and that we’ll still be mired in two wars that we don’t see our way out of.”
Murray was elected in 1992 as an unpretentious Everywoman who got into politics after trying to save a preschool program and being rebuffed by a state legislator who told her “You can’t make a difference. You’re just a mom in tennis shoes.”
After nearly 20 years in the Senate, Murray still comes across as unassuming, not one of the Senate’s Godzilla egos.
But now, as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she has made a career of bringing home hundreds of millions in federal largesse for everything from widening sidewalks in Spokane to sewage pumps for Puyallup.
But, Murray said, “We are tightening our belts,” noting the Appropriations Committee cut spending $14 billion below what Obama sketched out in his budget proposal, and that she went further by cutting another $850 million from her transportation subcommittee plan.
Palin's pick: ex-Redskin Didier
Assuming Rossi defeats Clint Didier, the former Washington Redskins tight end who's backed by Sarah Palin in Tuesday’s primary, he’ll face Murray in front of a staunchly Democratic electorate.
Obama carried the state with 58 percent in 2008, continuing a Democratic presidential winning streak here since 1984.
“Washington state historically does not elect conservatives to state-wide office,” said Elway.
The state hasn’t elected a Republican senator since Slade Gorton won re-election in 1994.
Yet Rossi has proven he can win. Republicans believe he did, in fact, win the 2004 governor’s race against Democrat Christine Gregoire. They say that election was stolen during contentious recounts which ended with Gregoire ahead by 133 votes.
But in the 2008 rematch, Rossi lost by nearly 200,000.
One reason for the big difference, according to Gregoire’s 2008 campaign manager Kelly Evans: the Democrats in 2008 did a much better job than they had in 2004 in defining Rossi as a man whose views were to the right of many voters’.
The Democrats ran ads accusing Rossi of wanting to cut the minimum wage after he said that he was open to the idea of a starter wage, beginning $1.50 below the minimum, for young people in their first job.
While Democrats paint Rossi as too far to the right, Didier says he’s blandly moderate. Didier said GOP leaders thought he couldn’t win in November “because I’m too conservative,” but, he asked, “Is that not an admission that Dino is not conservative?”
Conservative enough for DeMint
Rossi surely is a conservative, enough of one to win the backing of stalwarts Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
DeMint has thrown his weight around this year with his $3.5 million political action committee and endorsements of eight conservative Senate hopefuls, including Paul in Kentucky, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Ken Buck in Colorado.
A Republican strategist close to DeMint said that in Rossi’s conversations with DeMint and his aides, "Rossi checked every box: repealing the health care bill, for the balanced budget amendment, against earmark and pork-barrel spending, pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, opposed to amnesty for illegal immigrants."
But on immigration, Rossi rejects the proposal by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to end automatic birthright citizenship for babies born to illegal immigrants.
“It’s something people in D.C. are talking about,” Rossi said. “It’s nothing I’m running on.”
Rossi makes a point of telling audiences that his grandparents emigrated from Italy. His grandfather ended up in Black Diamond, Washington as a coal miner.
“There are people who come work on a temporary basis, but there are also people who want to come here and be part of America — just like my grandparents did when they came from Italy,” he told a campaign crowd. “That’s a piece that we don’t want to slow down. We want the new blood that comes here legally.”
But when asked what he would do with illegal immigrants who are here having children, Rossi was at a loss. “I honestly haven’t heard a decent solution — I’m all ears — for what you do with folks that are already here,” he said.
There has been a certain sketchiness so far to some of Rossi’s agenda. Unlike Republican Senate candidate Rob Portman in Ohio, for instance, who has a nine-page economic plan, Rossi has not yet offered a set of detailed proposals for repairing the economy. One is forthcoming, his campaign spokeswoman said.
For now, Rossi serves up mostly a mix of economic Armageddon — “fiscal cliff” and “a country we don’t recognize” — and his credentials as real estate investor and budget balancer when he served in state Senate.
And Murray offers herself as the mom who has become the earnest champion of ordinary folks. Sitting at her Seattle campaign headquarters Saturday, she said, “They need a champion in Washington D.C. and that’s what’s most important to people here, this far away from the capitol.”