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Cantwell Is a Top ’06 Target

Although the 2004 elections are not even over in Washington state, where absentee ballots are still being counted to determine the next governor, speculation has already begun about 2006.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who won her seat in 2000 by just 2,229 votes and continues to grapple with staggering campaign debt, is a top GOP target in 2006. The only question is, who will Republicans field against her?

In the Evergreen State, much of the speculation centers on state Sen. Dino Rossi, the Republican gubernatorial nominee.

At the end of last week, he trailed Attorney General Christine Gregoire (D) by more than 14,000 votes in an election where about 800,000 ballots were cast absentee.

The outstanding ballots seem to favor Gregoire, as the bulk are from King County, which includes Democratic Seattle. But operatives on both sides say it remains too early to call.

If Rossi loses, “I would say [he is] by far the strongest statewide candidate the Republicans could field at this point” for the 2006 Senate race, said Jim Dornan, an inside-the-Beltway-based GOP consultant who works on Washington state races.

Democratic insiders admit that Rossi could be an attractive Republican candidate, should he fail to become governor. But a Rossi political consultant said no one should print up Rossi for Senate banners just yet.

Rossi would have to consult with his family first and foremost, said Jim Keough, a Seattle-based Republican consultant working on Rossi’s gubernatorial race.

“My guess is … it’s not going to happen,” Keough said, adding that all speculation is moot should Rossi win the governorship.

Republicans also say not to count on Rep. George Nethercutt (R), who lost 55 percent to 43 percent against Sen. Patty Murray (D) on Tuesday, or retiring Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R).

Nethercutt would probably say “not a chance in heck” to another grueling Senate campaign, Keough said.

Nethercutt did tell The Associated Press on Friday, however, that he would not rule out another statewide run. But Dornan said Nethercutt is not really a viable statewide candidate because he hails from the sparsely populated eastern half of Washington.

Chris Vance, chairman of the Washington Republican Party, who himself has been mentioned as a possible Cantwell challenger, said Nethercutt’s future is uncertain.

As far as the popular Dunn goes, the general consensus seems to be that she is retiring from politics for good. “Her political organization is pretty much spreading to the wind” as she closes up her House shop in the 8th district to make way for newly elected Rep. Dave Reichert (R), Keough said.

And former Sen. Slade Gorton (R), who lost to Cantwell in the protracted 2000 recount, is not eager to jump back into elective politics either, Keough said.

Dornan admitted that the state’s Republican bench “is pretty weak” and said it could be tough to find a solid challenger for Cantwell. However, Keough offered up the possibility of former Rep. Rick White (R) throwing his hat into the ring.

White beat Cantwell, who was then a freshman House Member, for the 1st district seat in the 1994 Republican sweep. White then lost the seat to Rep. Jay Inslee (D) in 1998.

Since then, White has headed up a high-tech trade group called Tech Net.

Noting that White worked on Rossi’s campaign, as well as the successful run for attorney general by King County Councilman Rob McKenna (R), Keough says White has “re-emerged back into the political world.” As for a possible 2006 Senate run, “he’s put out some feelers,” Keough said.

Vance, who has made no secret of his own political ambitions, must also be in the mix, and admits that he’ll have to decide about a Senate run “soon.”

“I can’t talk about that yet,” Vance said last week. “I am completely focused on the governor’s race. I have not made any decisions about my future yet.”

Washington Republicans will hold their reorganization meeting at the end of January, so Vance will first have to decide whether to seek re-election as chairman.

Political observers agree that Vance can make a better case as to why he should be the candidate if Rossi is elected governor.

Without a Rossi win, it would be easier for Vance detractors to label him ineffective — Republicans lost control of the state Senate on Tuesday, they failed to unseat Murray, and Washington went for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the presidential race. But they did manage to hold both their open House seats and win the attorney general’s office.

Another possibility is John McKay, the U.S. attorney for Western Washington, a Democratic insider who did not want to be named said.

Outside of politics, there are also a couple of corporate executives whose names have been bandied about, including John Stanton, president of T-Mobile Wireless and Bob Herbolt, a top honcho at Microsoft Corp.

Stanton served as Rossi’s finance committee chairman. Herbolt’s wife, Pat, chairwoman of the King County Republicans, is another possibility, Keough said.

Republicans think Cantwell is vulnerable because of her narrow 2000 victory and outstanding campaign debt.

According to her Sept. 30 Federal Election Commission filing, her campaign is still $2.5 million in debt. She had $265,000 in the bank.

Cantwell overwhelmingly financed her first run with $10.3 million of her own personal fortune, most of which was directly linked to the financial health of her former employer, RealNetworks.

When the tech stock market bubble burst, a vast chunk of Cantwell’s personal fortune evaporated overnight. Including campaign loans she personally backed and interest payments, the 2000 race has cost her about $13 million — a sum she cannot afford in 2006.

Jed Lewison, Cantwell’s communications director, said debt is no longer an issue.

“All of that will be resolved early in the year,” he said. “It’s not a dominant factor.”

Most of the remaining debt is money owed to Cantwell rather than vendors, he said.

Cantwell has proven to be a prolific fundraiser, he said, pointing out that since 2000 Cantwell has raised “more than anyone in her class except for [New York Sen.] Hillary [Rodham Clinton].”

As of Sept. 30, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Cantwell had raised $16.5 million through the 2004 cycle.

Keough said that Cantwell has broken her pledge not to accept political action committee money and that will hurt her re-election hopes, and Vance has made similar accusations.

Cantwell still does not accept corporate or organized labor PAC money, but she has received contributions from some of her colleagues’ leadership PACs. Keough says she has violated the spirit of that pledge by accepting individual donations from the same people who would have given money through a PAC.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Cantwell’s top three contributors are Microsoft Corp., RealNetworks and Preston Gates & Ellis, a law firm.

“If the party of Halliburton and Enron wants to run a race about special interest money, we’re game,” Lewison retorted.

Democrats say that regardless of whom the Republicans get to challenge Cantwell, she is not as vulnerable as the GOP believes.

“This cycle we saw that Washington was an incredibly bright spot for us,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “They threw everything but the kitchen sink at Patty Murray and she came through in amazing fashion. Given the bent of that state and our success there and that [Cantwell’s] an incumbent and they rarely lose, we think she’ll be in very strong shape.”

“All that said, we have to plan for a tough race,” Lewison conceded.

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