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Will Geography Mean It’s (Cascade) Curtains For George Nethercutt?

Five-term Republican Rep. George Nethercutt (Wash.), who knocked off a political giant nine years ago, hopes to oust another one next year. And, once again, he faces very long odds.

In 1994, Nethercutt defeated then-Speaker Tom Foley (D) 51 percent to 49 percent with the help of a national GOP wave that handed the House to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years. Nethercutt was one of five Washington state Republicans to knock off a sitting Democratic incumbent, so it’s fair to say that something big was happening that year throughout the state.

[IMGCAP(1)] But this time, Nethercutt is likely on his own in his challenge to two-term Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. He can’t count on a GOP surge to put him over the top.

The White House had initially wooed Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) to enter the Senate race, but she decided to stay in the House. Nethercutt was next in line and the only other Republican who was widely regarded as having the stature to take on Murray. The Congressman apparently has decided it’s time for him to move “up or out,” so iffy prospects in a Senate race don’t frighten him.

Murray doesn’t immediately look like someone who could (or should) be characterized as a political heavyweight. But she is.

She initially campaigned, and won, in 1992 as a “mom in tennis shoes,” a wise choice in a year when voters were tired of plastic politicians and looking for outsiders. But in truth she was no neophyte then, and she has proven her mettle since that victory.

Never regarded as the most charismatic or politically savvy Member of the Senate, Murray nevertheless has had plenty of political experience and success. She served four years in the state Senate before coming to D.C., has won her U.S. Senate races with 54 percent and 58 percent respectively and chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the previous cycle.

In 1992, Murray beat Seattle-area Congressman (and former TV anchor) Rod Chandler (R), and six years later she defeated then-Rep. Linda Smith (R), who represented Southwest Washington. So far, the Senator’s liberalism hasn’t hurt her with Washington state voters.

Nethercutt, a former Congressional aide, has made his House district safe. He won his first contest by just less than 4,000 votes, but last year he won it by more than 60,000 votes, 63 percent to 32 percent.

The Congressman is a personable politician who represents the eastern third of the state. And that is his biggest problem.

Candidates from east of the Cascade Mountains (who live in either the 4th or 5th district) face a huge name-recognition problem in the more populous western third of the state, and name recognition is expensive to buy in the Seattle-Tacoma media market, which reaches almost three-quarters of the state’s population.

According to veteran Democratic consultant Jon Hutchens of Media Strategies & Research, in the fourth quarter of 2004, 1,000 gross ratings points in the Seattle-Tacoma media market are expected to cost about $344,000, compared to just $99,000 in the state’s two other media markets, which reach the eastern two-thirds of the state.

It is therefore much cheaper for Murray, a suburban Seattle politician, to spread her message in Nethercutt’s base than it is for Nethercutt to communicate with the voters in all-important Western Washington.

While the Republican’s district includes Spokane, the second largest city in the state, Nethercutt’s 5th district is a heavily rural area with concerns that are quite different from those of Seattle, Tacoma or Olympia. Indeed, Spokane is closer to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, (33 miles) and Missoula, Mont., (198 miles) than it is to Seattle (279 miles).

Because of that, Nethercutt may have trouble convincing Western Washington voters that he would be a better representative for them. However, he has always surrounded himself with a talented team that knows the state, and he is likely to be aggressive in his efforts to paint Murray as too liberal.

Money is also likely to be a factor. Murray spent more than $5 million in her 1998 re-election, and she should be able to raise much more than that this time. She ended June with $2.4 million in the bank.

In contrast, Nethercutt raised more than $1.7 million for his 2000 re-election, a considerable amount for a House Member and almost certainly a reflection of his membership on the House Appropriations Committee. Nethercutt showed $403,000 on hand as of June 30 of this year.

Nethercutt is a quality candidate who has been through competitive races before. But, with two statewide victories under her belt, Murray has proved that she is a formidable opponent. And Nethercutt has a long way to go to prove to skeptics that, from his base in Eastern Washington, he will have the resources and statewide appeal to defeat a sitting Senator.

Rothenberg Political Report

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