Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Washington U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

October 10, 2006
28 Days Until Election Day

Washington U.S. Senate

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (West)

Outlook: Leans Democrat

The race for U.S. Senate in Washington has at times been anticipated to be one of the closest of the 2006 election cycle and one in which might remain in doubt for days to weeks after the voting, as the Evergreen State goes about their occasional practice of slowly counting ballots in tight races. Over the past few weeks however, it appears that the race has been somewhat solidified in favor of the Democrat incumbent and that while the Republican cannot be totally counted out, the GOP is now more focused on other races that are deemed more winnable.

Among the several Democrat Senatorial pickups in the year 2000 was the contest in Washington where Maria Cantwell officially unseated a Republican incumbent a few days after the election once all the absentee ballots were counted. Despite losing in every area of the state outside of Seattle, Cantwell was a narrow victor and tipped the balance of the Senate to a 50-50 split. The bursting of the dot com bubble adversely affected the personal finances of Cantwell perhaps more than anybody else in politics, as the woman who after serving a single term in Congress, went on to make millions in the internet sector, lost a great deal of her personal wealth. Since she had financed much of her 2000 campaign from her own checkbook, this downturn was seen as something that could make Cantwell’s reelection in 2006 seen much in doubt, as she would have to utilize more traditional ways to fund a race for reelection.

Then in 2004, a Democrat was elected Governor of Washington by the thinnest of margins after much legal and political wrangling once some previously undiscovered ballots from heavily Democrat King County were suddenly discovered. During the post-election fight, polls showed that most Washingtonians had come to believe that Republican Dino Rossi should have been declared the true winner of the race and when he eventually conceded the race to the Democrat, Rossi was the beneficiary of some political goodwill throughout the state. Many Republicans were hoping that he could put that popularity to good use by taking on Cantwell for a Senate seat two years later, but Rossi made it pretty clear that he was more focused on a race for Governor in 2008, and has been working to that end ever since. Republicans were also disappointed when recently retired Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn, whom many considered a very strong potential opponent for Cantwell, also declined to make the race.

There would soon be grumbling among the GOP that the party was missing out on a golden opportunity to oppose Cantwell but eventually, Republicans regained some optimism as businessman Mike McGavick emerged as a serious contender, for whom the primary field would essentially be cleared in favor of. McGavick, who had managed a successful U.S. Senate campaign in the state, was seen as the kind of moderate Republican who could be a good fit for Washington as well as having the ability to spend a good deal of personal money on the race, as Cantwell had in 2000. Furthermore, there was still a belief that Republicans in Washington and indeed throughout the country would remain angry about what they viewed as a stolen Gubernatorial election in 2004 on the part of Democrats, that they would be extra motivated to make a stand in the Evergreen State at the next possible opportunity. While early polls on the 2008 race for Governor still show that Rossi has a lead in that contest, much of the anger against Democrats in the state has likely subsided among the general population.

Early polls in 2005 and the first few months 2006 however tended to favor Cantwell though by double digit margins, as McGavick went about the task of trying to build name recognition in a state that traditionally leans a little to the left. Some wondered if an ex-insurance company CEO would really be able to make headway in what many believed would be an unfriendly environment for Republican candidates.

As winter turned to spring though, little by little, public polling data began to show McGavick gaining on Cantwell and the Republican began to win plaudits for a somewhat unconventional campaign style in which the candidate was described as being able to come across as genuine and straightforward on the campaign trail. McGavick deliberated has avoided running much in the way of a negative campaign against Cantwell, believing that voters would reward him for running a positive race, and for presenting himself as an agent of change.

The polls would soon narrow into the single digit leads for Cantwell and many believed that McGavick had serious momentum and the chance to pull of an upset. He even undertook the dramatic campaign step of publicly releasing a list of various personal and professional regrets he had which included a 1993 drunk driving charge. At first, analysts applauded this as a shrewd move by McGavick for taking steps to lessen the impact that might be felt if these stories eventually came out and the belief was that voters would respond to and appreciate his candor about previous personal shortcomings, something that politicians are often less than willing to do. However, the media soon began reporting the fact that records showed that the details of the DUI incident were different in some regards from what McGavick had claimed happened and suddenly people began thinking that the Republican had been deliberately deceitful and thus the positive impact of confessing to the DUI was negated. At around this time, most polls began to show Cantwell lead starting to slowly rebuild itself into a more noticeable one.

The Senator certainly has personal and political issues of her own to deal with. There has been some talk regarding potential ethical problems related to her personal finances and also her personal life, as well as the perception that she a bit of a unpleasant person to be around at times. A top staffer from Cantwell’s 2000 campaign penned an article in which he declared support for the reelection of his former boss while absolutely savaging her in the harshest of terms for her personal demeanor and treatment of others. However, most of Cantwell’s political problems are more likely to have to do with her votes on issues such as the war in Iraq. A good deal of liberal activists in Washington have at times expressed a belief that Cantwell is far too moderate on issues such as the war for their liking and expressed a willingness to withhold support for her reelection. Cantwell, who owes much of the thanks for her 2000 election to liberal voters who might have been motivated to vote thanks to the Presidential campaign of Ralph Nader of the Green Party, faced a long-shot Democrat primary opponent that few expected to win, but who was believed to be likely to receive a somewhat sizable vote of protest against Cantwell. Then, somewhat abruptly, that candidate ended his primary challenge and started working on the Cantwell campaign for a hefty salary. This move raised many eyebrows as it made it look somewhat obvious that Cantwell had in effect bought the support of somebody who had just recently been very critical towards her.

As this contest enters the final month, two polls show Cantwell now leading McGavick by a lead of nine to ten points, indicating a pretty tough margin for the Republican challenger to overcome. Still though, the most recent survey from Rasmussen Reports puts Cantwell’s lead at just 6 points which is a major drop from a 17 point lead they had her enjoying just two weeks later. Such a result should probably be viewed with a grain of salt though as it is unlikely that Cantwell ever had that large of a lead in September or that McGavick had so much momentum on his side over a two-week period.

Most now would consider a McGavick win to be a pretty major upset and while he has the ability to spend freely of his own money, NRSC resources now appear to be prioritized in states like Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee, where the GOP desperately needs to hold Senate seats currently under their control. McGavick, who is seen as more personally appealing than Cantwell would very much like to debate the incumbent as much as possible between now and the election but she has taken steps to limit the number and scope of joint appearances, which will make a comeback effort more difficult. A Green Party candidate will also be on the ballot, who could take a few percentage points out of Cantwell’s total, but that amount just might not be enough to cost her a seat in the Senate.

If the race is truly 48-42 as Rasmussen suggested, then McGavick is at least still in the game, and his campaign will probably be applauded for its effectiveness in a tough political environment for Republicans, beyond the botched DUI confession. It should not be forgotten that polls at this stage of the game in Washington in 2004 showed that Democrat Christine Gregoire was also leading Dino Rossi by double digits, but she came away from that race in a contest that nearly ended in an exact tie.

McGavick has tried to portray himself as a maverick that will put principle before party, but Cantwell and Democrats believe that a strategy of tying him to the Bush Administration and national Republicans will seal his fate. Cantwell will probably carry just a small handful of counties in Washington and still be reelected. With her personal and political vulnerabilities however, she should maybe consider herself lucky that the Republican Rossi would rather still be Governor than a U.S. Senator, because she would very likely be sweating out these final days of the campaign a good deal more.

McGavick campaign link:


2006 Senate races predicted thus far: 17 D, 13 R
Post-election Senate balance of power predicted thus far: 44 D, 53 R