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Could Washington GOP Anger Hurt Cantwell?

Washington state Republicans may be blue now that Attorney General Christine Gregoire (D) appears to have finally wrested the governorship from former state Sen. Dino Rossi (R) on the third ballot count.

But if they start seeing red, that could hurt Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) in her bid for re-election in 2006.

An invigorated GOP electorate, hopping mad over what many believe to be a flawed 2004 gubernatorial election count, could turn out in droves in the next election to lodge their protest, said Jim Dornan, an inside-the-Beltway GOP consultant who works on Washington state races.

Republicans already thought Cantwell was vulnerable. She won election by only 2,229 votes in her protracted 2000 race against then-Sen. Slade Gorton (R), and she has been saddled with sizable campaign debt ever since.

“I think Maria Cantwell is thought of as being very vulnerable,” said Jim Keough, a Seattle-based Republican consultant working on Rossi’s gubernatorial bid. “People are very upset with what she did with the whole money aspect — saying she wasn’t going to accept any contributions, and then she started begging all over state for money when her stock fell. There’s a pretty big backlash.”

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

She pledged not to accept corporate or organized labor political action committee money — a pledge she has kept — but when the tech stock market bubble burst, wiping away most of her personal fortune, she was forced to began fundraising from individuals in earnest.

Republican partisans, and possibly some voters, perceive that as a break of her commitment to eschew PAC money.

Add to that Rossi’s narrow loss to Gregoire — the final count put her a mere 129 votes ahead — and Republicans think they have a good shot at picking up Cantwell’s seat.

That being said, the most logical challenger, Rossi, apparently is not willing to jump out of the fire and into the frying pan.

“He has no intention at all, right now, of running for the Senate,” Keough said of Rossi. “If, at some point, it appears he hasn’t won this election, my guess is he’ll look at the 2008 gubernatorial race.”

Rossi has left open the possibility of contesting his loss to Gregoire in court, either on the grounds that the election was hopelessly flawed or by claiming fraud.

Two vote counts showed Rossi with a narrow lead; only a third and final hand count of the almost 4 million ballots made Gregoire the official winner late last month, seven weeks after ballots had been cast. She is scheduled to assume office on Jan. 12.

More often than many states, voters in Washington rehabilitate candidates who lose elections. Cantwell was bounced from the House after just one term in 1994 only to come back and win the Senate race in 2000. Gorton, the man she defeated, lost his Senate seat after one term in 1986 and came back to win the state’s other seat two years later.

Several other Washington politicians in the recent past, including Rep. Jay Inslee (D), have lost high-profile races only to return later to public office.

Keough believes Cantwell is vulnerable to more potential challengers than just Rossi.

“Rossi organized a very strong grassroots organization that I’m sure will be available to whomever the Republican nominee is,” he said.

Dornan said despite Rossi’s intentions now, no one should count him out of the 2006 Senate race yet.

“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on him to run for the Senate,” Dornan said. “A lot of rank-and-file people will say he cannot lose the momentum; four years is an eternity. [We have] no idea what the climate will look like then.

“How many fighters retire after their last loss only to come back?” Dornan asked.

Other names that have been floated as possible Republican Senate candidates include former Rep. Rick White, who defeated Cantwell for her House seat in the 1994 GOP sweep, state party Chairman Chris Vance, T-Mobile Wireless President John Stanton and Microsoft Corp. executive Bob Herbolt.

Former Rep. George Nethercutt (R), who lost to Sen. Patty Murray (D) in November, has not ruled out another statewide run either.

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