When Dino Rossi first narrowly won — and then narrowly lost — his race for governor of Washington last fall, he had a choice to make.
Rossi, a Republican, could have smiled, congratulated the 129-vote winner, Democrat Christine Gregoire, and quietly plotted his political comeback.
If Rossi had taken that path, he would have followed a trail blazed by then-Reps. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) and then-Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.). Each of them lost a painfully close Senate contest but decided against a potentially divisive court challenge. Instead, each found vindication: Ensign and Thune won Senate bids two years after their losses, and Ashcroft was named U.S. attorney general within months of his.
[IMGCAP(1)]Rossi would have been well-placed to parlay his impressive gubernatorial showing (Gregoire had been the favorite throughout the campaign) into an aggressive 2006 challenge against Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat who won her seat in 2000 by a mere 2,200 votes.
But Rossi bucked recent history. Rather than lay the groundwork for a Senate bid, he filed a lawsuit to overturn the gubernatorial hand recount that gave Gregoire the governor’s seat after Rossi had won in two earlier counts by 261 and 42 votes. Rossi and his attorneys allege systematic voting irregularities in King County, the populous Democratic bastion that includes Seattle. The trial began Monday in more rural (and more Republican) Chelan County.
If Rossi prevails in his lawsuit, then the governorship will be declared vacant and a special election will be called for November.
But if Rossi loses — and even if he doesn’t — his strategy of prolonging an already contentious campaign could make him look like a sore loser to many Washington state voters. And if that were to happen, Rossi could damage his appeal to the crossover Democrats and independents he’ll need to court if he harbors future statewide political ambitions.
At least that’s the concern raised by politicos who witnessed similar scenarios unfold in South Dakota, Nevada and Missouri in the past six years.
Voters Dislike Bad Sports
In South Dakota, Thune could have easily contested his 524-vote loss to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) in 2002 because it
came amid allegations of vote fraud on Indian reservations, which traditionally support Democrats.
But “South Dakotans do not like poor losers,” said Robert Miller, executive director of the South Dakota Electric Utility Companies. “If Thune had launched a court challenge, his South Dakota rating would have fallen way off. And if he had won the court challenge, I believe he would have set himself up for a defeat in the next election.”
Todd Epp, an attorney and Democratic activist in Sioux Falls, agreed that Thune’s actions “put himself in the good graces of South Dakota voters.” If anything, Epp notes, then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) — the man Thune defeated in 2004 — may have squandered goodwill when he sought and won a minor court victory over election procedure on the eve of the 2004 election.
In Nevada, where John Ensign lost by 428 votes to current Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D) in 1998, politicos say Ensign, too, did everything right to maintain positive feelings among voters.
“There was the usual swarming of national Republican operatives to help him challenge the results, and he pushed it as far as he could — up to the point where he would only look petulant,” said Jon Ralston, who publishes a newsletter on Nevada politics. “Eventually, it became clear to him that there was no upside to continuing to push.”
Ashcroft’s dilemma may have been diciest of all. In 2000, he lost to the late Gov. Mel Carnahan (D), 22 days after Carnahan died in a plane crash. Though Carnahan’s margin of victory was roughly 49,000 votes, allegations of voting irregularities in St. Louis led many Republicans to urge a challenge by Ashcroft. He declined.
Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said Ashcroft’s decision was both gracious and prudent, given the widespread sympathy for the Carnahan family.
Moreover, Ashcroft “lost by 2 percentage points, so there was no doubt about the outcome,” Jones said. “To challenge would be to accuse the majority of voters of being wrong.”
But how relevant are these prior examples for Rossi? Analysts who have followed the back-and-forth in Washington state are ambivalent.
Risks and Potential Rewards
On the one hand, most agree that Rossi has assumed some political risk by pursuing his judicial challenge.
True, Rossi and his team tout polls, conducted by a Republican firm, showing that 56 percent of Washington state residents think Rossi should have been declared the winner, compared to just 36 for Gregoire. But at some point, experts say, theory has to begin to clash with reality.
By the time the case is decided, Gregoire will have been in office for the better part of a year — and she hasn’t been just a seat-warmer. Using mettle honed as a long-serving state attorney general, Gregoire implemented an aggressive agenda, winning votes on the budget, the environment and, most notably, on transportation funding — the latter a measure that seemed dead before she revived it with the help of Republican lawmakers.
At some point, keeping up the legal fight against Gregoire “can be counterproductive, in the sense that people not just in the Democratic Party but also in the media and political centrists could say, ‘Why can’t he give it up?’” said David Olson, a political scientist at the University of Washington. “That could come back to haunt him.”
Chris Sautter, a Democratic consultant who advised the Gregoire camp during the recount, added that even if Rossi wins in court, he faces steep odds of ousting Gregoire.
“My experience is that the voters never vote on the basis of the last election, but rather on the basis of the record of performance in office,” he said. “That’s why someone elected by a razor-thin margin almost never loses a rematch.”
While the state GOP has made the court case a high priority — it has chipped in most of the roughly $2 million spent so far — there is anecdotal evidence that rank-and-file GOP support is at something less than fever pitch. Some Republican legislators have publicly praised Gregoire’s governing skills, and “the right-wing gabbers have moved off the gubernatorial race and are now on to raising a quarter-million signatures to put the transportation package on the ballot” so that it can be recalled, said Joel Connelly, a veteran political journalist with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
At the same time, there is an upside for Rossi. If he does wish to keep his political prospects strong, he should benefit from keeping his base focused and engaged, Olson said.
“He’s kept his troops going and his money flowing, and to that extent it will help him,” Olson said. “What strikes me about this question is that if you’d asked me two years ago, I probably would have felt differently. But because of the rising bitterness in politics and the focus on winning elections by keeping your base energized, I now see the merit in something I once would have dismissed as foolish and counterproductive.”
Even better, Rossi has let the state party do much of the talking, which has helped keep voters from tiring of him personally, said one Republican consultant. “It’s a slippery slope, and one that Rossi has handled well so far,” the consultant said.
Defying D.C. Assumptions
National Republicans still crave a Rossi challenge to Cantwell. But assessing the political strategy Rossi has taken depends on knowing what his ultimate goal is.
In Washington, D.C., it is often assumed that a promising politician who narrowly loses a governor’s race would naturally want to run for the Senate if the opportunity arises. But in an interview with reporters in D.C. last week, Rossi made it clear that the Senate holds little interest for him.
Rossi said he’s focusing exclusively on his court case as a way of forcing change upon a King County electoral system he considers seriously broken. And to the extent he’s paying attention to elective office, he said, it’s all about the governorship.
“Being a U.S. Senator is probably a great job, but I don’t know how it would fix my state,” he said. “You can’t clean out department heads by being a U.S. Senator.”
Even more of an exception to the norms of D.C. is that Rossi — a real-estate investor before he became a state Senator — says he’s happy to give up politics entirely if it comes to that.
“I don’t need a political career,” he said. “I was happy before and will definitely be happy after. And that’s very freeing.”
If Rossi can be taken at his word, he may actually be free enough to rewrite the conventional wisdom about how to bounce back from a razor-thin loss.