As he prepares to announce his candidacy for the Senate — perhaps as early as today — Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) starts off as the decided underdog in his quest to deny Sen. Patty Murray (D) a third term.
Murray has all the advantages of incumbency, including a war chest that is almost six times as large as Nethercutt’s ($2.3 million to $403,000 as of June 30).
She comes from the populous Seattle region, where elections in Washington are generally won or lost; Nethercutt represents sparsely populated Eastern Washington, which is seldom a factor in statewide elections.
Nethercutt is widely seen, at least by political insiders, as the GOP’s second choice, after Rep. Jennifer Dunn turned down an opportunity to run in the spring. What’s more, Democrats have a ready issue they can fire away at Nethercutt with from the outset: his decision to break his three-term-limit pledge in 2000, despite making term limits the cornerstone of his first House campaign in 1994.
But despite all these handicaps, no one is counting Nethercutt out. He made history by ousting then-Speaker Tom Foley (D) in 1994 — the first time a sitting Speaker had been defeated since the Civil War — and proved to be a dogged campaigner.
Moreover, Nethercutt could benefit from a push by national Republicans to win Washington for President Bush in 2004, despite the fact that Democrats have prevailed in the past four presidential elections in the Evergreen State. Nethercutt may also be helped by the 2004 gubernatorial race, which is shaping up as a contest characterized by confusion on the Democratic side and unity among Republicans.
Finally, many Republicans believe that Murray, despite impressive victories in 1992 and 1998, is simply more vulnerable this time.
Nethercutt will issue a statement today declaring his candidacy, a source close to the 58-year-old Congressman said. He had been undecided about a Senate race for several months but apparently changed his mind after meeting with Bush and White House political guru Karl Rove last week.
Republicans are ecstatic about Nethercutt’s decision, because beyond Dunn and Nethercutt, there were no obvious candidates.
“We think that he’d make an excellent candidate and a tremendous Senator,” said Dan Allen, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Democrats remain publicly confident about Murray’s prospects next year.
“We feel very, very good about Patty Murray’s chances,” said Michael Siegel, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who called Murray “the original soccer mom” and said she appeals to a wide swath of the electorate.
But even though Murray remains the favorite for now, Democrats cannot be happy about the prospect of dedicating resources to a state they hoped they would not have to defend.
On a bigger scale, Nethercutt’s decision to enter the Senate fray adds to the state of political flux on the West Coast, where Democrats have largely held sway for the past decade. Between Bush’s plans to contest the recent Democratic presidential strongholds of Washington and Oregon in 2004, and the chaos in California over the recall election of Gov. Gray Davis (D), Democrats now have to fight to protect turf they hoped would be safe.
In Washington alone, there could be competitive races for Senate, governor and the White House in 2004, as well as several close House elections.
Three prominent Democrats are now competing for the gubernatorial nomination — Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire, King County Executive Ron Sims and former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge. Rep. Jay Inslee (D), among others, could also enter the gubernatorial election soon.
On the Republican side, party leaders are coalescing around retired Microsoft executive Bob Herbold, though he has not said definitively that he will run.
Chris Vance, the chairman of the Washington Republican Party, has repeatedly said that party unity is the key to statewide victory in 2004.
“It’s going to be different this time in Washington,” Vance said Tuesday. “Republicans have their act together, we’re going to be united, and we’re going to win.”
The primary in Washington is not until September, leaving Democrats just seven weeks before the general election to kiss and make up in the gubernatorial race, and any animus could trickle down to Murray.
“A late primary gives you a lot less time than a June primary to get your party back together and back on board and everybody shaking hands,” said Hans Kaiser, a Republican consultant who has worked frequently on the West Coast.
Meanwhile, Nethercutt’s decision to run for Senate will set off a scramble in both parties to replace him in the House. Although Bush won 57 percent of the vote in the 5th district in 2000, Democrats believe they can compete there. Spokane, the hub of the district with 200,000 residents, is a swing area with a substantial number of union households, and until 2002 Nethercutt never took more than 57 percent of the vote districtwide.
“We think it’s a good opportunity for us, former Speaker Foley’s seat,” said Kori Bernards, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
State Sen. Lisa Brown and union official Tom Keefe, who took 39 percent of the vote against Nethercutt in 2000, are the two most frequently mentioned potential Democratic candidates, though party activists are hoping Chris Marr, chairman of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce and a political moderate, will run. Two other possibilities: Rosanna Peterson, an adjunct at the Gonzaga University Law School in Spokane, and Judy Olson, former president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, who ran against Nethercutt in 1996.
Most of the sprawling 5th is rural and conservative. One Democratic consultant based in Washington state said the party has had trouble recruiting strong candidates for offices in Eastern Washington since the nationwide Republican surge of 1994.
“Since the wipeout there hasn’t been any real concerted effort to go back and to find candidates that reflect the values of the area,” said the consultant, who did not want to be named. “It’s going to take a concerted effort to bring it back.”
Among the Republicans reportedly considering the race are state Sen. Larry Sheahan and state Rep. Cathy McMorris.
“The odds are that the Republicans are going to hold that seat,” Kaiser predicted.