Weak tea in Washington

Seattle Soundings

Labor Day is traditionally the time of year when people start to get interested in fall elections - with our all-mail ballot system, it's not much time until ballots arrive in mid-October. In coming weeks, I'll look at the critical ballot measures to be decided this year.
But first, let's look at when people weren't paying attention - this year's somnambulent August primary - and what it revealed about the only statewide race for elected office this year: Patty Murray's run for a fourth term as U.S. senator against Republican perma-candidate Dino Rossi.
No news here
With mail-in ballots, there's never any such thing as a truly final tally, but the percentages aren't going to change: Murray got 46 percent; Rossi, 33 percent; and Tea Party candidate Clint Didier, 12 percent. That's exactly what everyone expected.
The big news, then, was the lack of news: the absence in Washington of the strong anti-incumbent fervor whose existence has dominated political conventional wisdom in 2010.
Primary votes - especially now that we hold them in August, when the weather is nice and most people are focused on anything other than politics - are low-turnout affairs. As such, they tend to skew more partisan (more highly motivated voters) and more conservative (more older, regular voters, who lean more conservative) than November voters. Both factors should have helped Didier. They obviously didn't help much. Why? Rossi, of course, had two huge advantages over Didier: money (much of it from national sources, as with Murray) and name familiarity. It also didn't help that Didier's the-federal-government-is-an-inherently-bad-thing message was undercut by the news that he'd received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal farm subsidies over the years - he wasn't the best messenger for his message. But that explains why Didier lost - not why he barely cracked double-digits and Rossi nearly tripled his total. For that, we need three other factors, both with implications for Dino's chances in November.
Sticking with 'strategy'
The first is that when Rossi broke his long-standing policy of avoiding commenting on actual issues (a hallmark of his two gubernatorial runs), it was (a la John McCain) to ditch his image of a moderate and to try to out-Teabag Didier.
Rossi became the first major Republican senatorial candidate in the country to call for outright repeal of the weak Wall Street reforms passed this summer by Congress - fitting for a man still making a living lecturing on how to profit from real estate foreclosures (which Rossi was doing even this summer), and for one getting huge money contributions from Wall Street (ditto), but an odd political choice in this Year of Bashing Wall Street. He also copped - after years of avoiding the subject - to opposing reproductive freedom for women for "anything other than maybe rape, incest or life of the mother." "Maybe"?
Rossi's strategy, of course, will be to forget all that and run to the center now that it worked and he's survived the primary.August's turnout was average for all-mail primaries, off 2 percent from 2008, when there was a governor but no U.S. senator race on the primary ballot - no great crest of enthusiasm this time, Teabagging or otherwise.
A losing fight?
Among those who did vote this year, however, the biggest other race on the ballot suggests problems for Rossi. Conservative state Supreme Court justice Jim Johnson won reelection with a whopping 62 percent of the vote over a strong challenger, Stan Rumbaugh.
That vote suggests the power of money and incumbency in judicial elections, but also that the primary skewed about as conservative as a statewide race in Washington will ever get.
Didier's crash-and-burn routine suggests that the Tea Party simply doesn't have the impact among conservatives here that it does in, say, Alaska, where last week, a little-known Palin endorsee upset incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a primary.
To the extent it does thrive, Teabaggers aren't going to like Rossi's tack to the middle in the next two months. But even if we assume that Didier's 12 percent will almost all go to Rossi, Murray got more votes than both of them combined. How does Dino make up more votes among a more moderate November electorate? Rossi's got a problem. All other things being equal, he'll lose.
No longer an outsider
But Rossi has a secret weapon: he's running against a Democrat, and Democrats have a long, storied history of being idiots. (In basketball, it's called making "unforced errors.") Enter Patty Murray. On Election Day, there was Murray, hosting President Barack Obama and wearing tennis shoes? Why?
Because some clever Democratic consultant told her there's an anti-incumbent mood afoot, so Murray is reviving the "mom-in-tennis-shoes" schtick from her initial 1992 run for Senate.
Now, two decades on, implying that Murray is still an outsider goes well beyond insulting the intelligence of voters. It also undermines her only real achievements in office.
If the election were today, Rossi would lose, and he's a known quantity - few additional people will vote for him. But plenty could still be persuaded to vote against Murray. If she keeps up with the self-inflicting wounds, it's going to be close.
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]]