Don't mis-underestimate Sen. Patty Murray.
Our state's political buzz right now is centering on the race to challenge her, with the assumption that Murray and either the newly declared Dino Rossi or a Tea Party-backed Republican (most likely Clint Didier) will survive the August top-two primary to face off in November - and the additional assumption that in this year of heightened Republican expectations and strong anti-incumbent sentiment, Murray will be beatable.
A worthy competitor
On that last point, history doesn't agree. The last two decades of politics in Washington state are littered with the political carcasses of powerful Republicans who thought the "mom in tennis shoes" (as Murray fashioned herself in her first, 1992 Senate run, before she refashioned herself as a political juggernaut) was a pushover. Murray effectively ended their political careers, each and every one.
In 1992 (after supplanting incumbent Democrat Sen. Brock Adams, who dropped his run for reelection due to allegations that he drugged and raped several women), despite being vastly outspent, Murray beat Rep. Rod Chandler 54 to 46 percent; in 1998, she walloped Rep. Linda Smith, 58 to 42 percent; and in 2004, she took out the "unbeatable" Rep. George Nethercutt (who initially won his Eastern Washington seat by beating then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom Foley), 55-43 percent.
Three elections against well-funded Republican Congresspeople from different parts of the state and different branches of the Republican Party; three trouncings of politicians who never again held elected office. Why is this?
Show her the money
It's not like Murray is a great senator. Indeed, her legislative record is remarkably spare for nearly two decades in the U.S. Senate; her more-conservative junior colleague, Maria Cantwell, has a far more impressive legislative resume.
And aside from a handful of surprisingly courageous votes (notably against the Iraq war, when that was a hotly contested issue, and most recently supporting a withdrawal from Afghanistan), her voting is indistinguishable from that of the timid Democratic Party leadership she has joined.
Instead, that's the key. Murray set out, in 1992, not to write laws, but to climb the party and Senate hierarchy and use that influence to raise money for herself and to deliver pig meat (bacon or pork, depending on your perspective) to Washington state. And she's proven very, very adept at that game.
Aside from a handful of safe, voter-friendly topics (notably veteran affairs), Murray doesn't lead on issues. What she does do is direct money - a lot of it. She serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee (and its subcommittee on Defense, where she carries water enthusiastically for The Boeing Co.).
By 2001, less than a decade into her tenure, she chaired the Democratic Party committee that raised national money for Democratic Senate candidates; she's currently the Senate Majority Conference secretary. She's built a persona (in the image of Warren Magnuson and Scoop Jackson) as a senator who funnels federal appropriations money to her home state, for everything from Boeing contracts to Sound Transit's light-rail project.
And at the beginning of June, before the serious fund-raising has even begun, she's already sitting on more than $10 million raised for her reelection effort, a staggering sum.
Facing that, Rossi and Didier are pursuing two vastly different strategies.
Rossi was recruited to run by the national Republican Party establishment. He's getting an extremely late start, but he'll surely have financial support from the national party: He can't compete with Murray's dollars, but he'll raise enough money to be competitive. He's banking on his name recognition from his two gubernatorial races to also make up for that lost time.
But Rossi has two glaring weaknesses. One is those races against Christine Gregoire, which he lost - narrowly in 2004, not so narrowly in 2008. Moreover, he didn't lose very graciously, and now he's running against another woman. Bad visuals, as they say in TV. And it plays into Patty Murray's wheelhouse - just ask Brock Adams.
Beyond that, there's the issue of what Rossi's been doing in the years since (in his mind) he was elected governor in 2004: A number of speculative real estate deals that, in light of the housing bubble and record foreclosures, come off as positively predatory. So, faced with questions regarding the ethics of his business practices, what does Rossi do? As his first hire, he picked GOP consultant Pat Shortridge to run his campaign. Shortridge, before its collapse, was a lobbyist for Enron - perfect.
Shortridge has another high-profile job, and here's where things get interesting: He's also advising Marco Rubio, the Tea Party favorite whose insurgent Senate campaign in Florida has essentially forced star GOP Gov. Charlie Crist out of the party. Rossi is clearly hoping for the same sort of grassroots magic Shortridge got from Rubio as a way to counter the Palin-endorsed run of Clint Didier.
Despite his lack of money or establishment backing, Didier, however, has something Rossi doesn't: a fresh face, in a year when business-as-usual is proving wildly unpopular at the polls.
How the Rossi/Didier confrontation will play out is thus drawing a lot of attention from our state's punditin class.
But it ignores Murray: Nobody's beaten her. Nobody's come close. And even in an anti-incumbent year, in 2010, nobody's going to.
Geov Parrish is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on "Mind Over Matters" on KEXP 90.3 FM.[[In-content Ad]]