Two months after Washington state Republican favorite Rep. Jennifer Dunn decided not to challenge Sen. Patty Murray (D) in 2004, party officials say they still don’t know who their candidate will be.
Rep. George Nethercutt, who met with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) to discuss strategy in early April as rumors about Dunn’s no-go grew stronger, has yet to announce whether he will run.
Chris Vance, Washington state Republican Party chairman, said last week, “Nobody knows. George is thinking about it seriously.”
What is apparent, however, is that Republicans don’t have an obvious Plan C in case Nethercutt forgoes the Senate race and decides to remain in the House.
Nethercutt spokeswoman April Gentry said her boss would not comment.
“He is still deciding,” she said, and will announce by “early summer.” Gentry would not specify a date, other than noting that summer begins on June 21.
Democrats say that with Dunn out of the race, they’re not nearly as concerned.
“We feel really, really good at this stage about [Murray’s] prospects,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Anybody who gets in now, it looks like they’re coming in off the bench.”
Not true, retort Washington state Republicans.
“Voters are not thinking about this. This is inside politics,” Vance said. “This is not going to affect the election at all for voters.”
Mike McKay, a Seattle attorney who co-chaired the Washington state Bush/Cheney campaign in 2000, said the current absence of a Senate candidate won’t hurt Republicans next year.
“I’d agree it’d be a problem if [Nethercutt] waits until Halloween,” he said. “Good candidates think it through.”
One variable Nethercutt is likely to weigh is the preponderance of swing-voting moderates in the heavily populated Seattle-Tacoma area — which is what made Dunn, who represents a suburban Seattle district, so attractive to the GOP. Nethercutt represents Spokane, in the more sparsely populated, rural and conservative eastern side of Washington. Washington state Senators traditionally hail from west of the Cascade Mountains.
Then, there are the advantages to Nethercutt of staying put.
Nethercutt was re-elected to his fifth term last year with a solid majority and has a seat on the House Appropriations Committee. One Hill Democratic source said the odds are that Nethercutt will decide to keep “his relatively safe seat,” calling Nethercutt’s uncertainty “an elaborate fundraising opportunity.”
McKay, who is hosting a Nethercutt fundraiser today, said he “wouldn’t be going to this trouble, as would a lot of others, if this was just to help George be re-elected in Spokane.” He added, “I’m confident that he will make a prompt decision. There’ll be several of us talking to him.”
Meanwhile, insiders speculate about who might next step up to bat if Nethercutt does not seek the Senate seat. McKay said several Republicans, including party chairman Vance, might be contenders. A Democrat source called it the “Dick Cheney scenario. [Vance] searches long and hard for the right candidate and it turns out to be himself.”
Vance would not rule out a Senate bid last week, but said he is “completely focused” on making Republican gains in 2004.
“What’s best for that effort is for George Nethercutt to run for U.S. Senate and for me to run the party,” he said.
Washington state Republicans say they are confident the national party will pay close attention to their state in 2004.
“Ken Mehlman [the new campaign manager for President Bush] is going to be here, meeting with us and raising money. I think it’s pretty clear the Bush campaign thinks Washington and Oregon are important,” Vance said.
McKay said last week he met with “Karl Rove in December and he told me and I’ve been told by the people in political affairs since then. We are a target state.”
Both Vance and McKay said their state will be a national priority regardless of who emerges as the Senate candidate. Vance said his party “made it very clear to us that they want a race against Patty Murray.”
Lance LeLoup, a professor of political science at Washington State University, however, said it is likely national Republican Party interest would decrease should Nethercutt decide not to run.
“Clearly, the further down the list you go, the smaller their chances of winning are,” and Vance lacks statewide name recognition, LeLoup said. “Theoretically, if he’s candidate C, well, you may be getting down to the point in the list where the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] doesn’t want to pour the money in here.”
Democrats are confident that Vance’s chances would be slimmer than Nethercutt’s.
“I don’t know if it matters that there’s a Plan C,” Woodhouse said.
Vance, a former King County councilman, last ran for office in 2000 against incumbent Rep. Adam Smith (D), gaining 35 percent of the vote. Of that race, Vance said, “The whole thing sort of collapsed. Bush got 42 percent of the vote in my district.”
Vance was, however, able to raise a respectable $635,000 for that race.
Riding the coattails of a strong presidential campaign might be the Republicans’ best hope, according to LeLoup.
“A good strong Republican candidate in a good Republican year could possibly pull an upset here,” he said.
Woodhouse said that while Democrats are taking nothing for granted, “nobody has stepped up to the plate yet and every day that passes, [Murray] looks stronger and stronger.”