Washington Gov. Jay Inslee might be Sen. Patty Murray’s best friend in 2016.
A Republican operative confirmed to CQ Roll Call the party is looking to target Murray this cycle, but with many of the state’s most eligible Republicans expressing more interest in challenging the Democratic governor, a formidable candidate remains elusive.
The man who could be the GOP’s top recruit is, at least publicly, noncommittal. Rep. Dave Reichert, a six-term congressman who's flirted with statewide office before, told CQ Roll Call in a statement Monday, “My entire career I have always kept my options open. I have considered every possibility that has been put in front of me.”
Reichert isn't ruling out a Senate bid, but he's more often mentioned as a gubernatorial contender. He could just as well decide to stay put in Washington’s 8th District, which, thanks to redistricting, is now safer turf for a Republican. But just in case, Reichert's aides confirmed last year to the Seattle Times that he has owned ReichertforGovernor.com and ReichertforSenate.com since at least 2011.
As for other top recruits from the delegation, few Washington state sources expect Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers to risk her position as House Republican Conference chairwoman in a competitive race against the four-term senator.
Other Republican names in the mix include state Sen. Steve Litzow, state Sen. Andy Hill and Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant. But all three have been more vocal about their interest in the gubernatorial race.
Washington GOP Chairwoman Susan Hutchison told CQ Roll Call the state party is talking with a number of potential candidates interested in challenging Murray. "Some are elected officials and others are new to campaigns," she said, but it may take some time for the top tier to solidify. Hutchison expects the Republican field for governor to crystallize first.
“We have a number of outstanding legislators,” Hutchison said. “We’ll wait and see what their interests are.” State legislators, Hutchison explained, are prohibited from campaigning or raising money as long as they’re in session, and it’s unknown when the current special session will end.
Why is Inslee attracting all the GOP love in the Evergreen State?
According to Washington Democratic Party spokesman Jamal Raad, Republicans have “a real big vendetta against" the former congressman because "they thought they were going to beat him last time and didn’t." Inslee defeated Republican Rob McKenna by 3 points in 2012, and his seat is rated Safe Democrat by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.
But the wider interest in challenging the governor is probably far less about Inslee than Murray and the GOP's difficulty winning statewide federal elections. Republicans with higher political aspirations don’t think they can defeat her.
Since 2010, when she won re-election by 5 points in a dismal cycle for Democrats, Murray has continued to emerge as a force for the party. The following cycle, she spearheaded Democrats’ election efforts as chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. A member of Senate Democratic leadership since 2007, Murray, currently ranked fourth, hasn’t ruled out a challenge to Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin for minority whip next year.
Known for working hard while keeping her head down, she flies home instead of making the Sunday talk show rounds. The watch she wears every day is set to Washington state's time zone.
Murray has earned respect for working across the aisle. Most recently, she brokered a deal with Texas Sen. John Cornyn on human trafficking legislation. And in 2013, as the first female Democrat to chair the Senate Budget Committee, she negotiated a budget deal with Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., with whom she’s remained friendly.
At the same time, Murray has pushed progressive issues, including a paid sick leave amendment and proposed a $12 federal minimum wage . Having Hillary Rodham Clinton at the top of the ticket will likely boost Murray’s fortunes in a state President Barack Obama carried by 15 points in 2012.
The headwinds may be blowing in her direction, but Murray’s fundraising doesn’t suggest she’s taking her re-election lightly, even without a declared challenger at this early point in the cycle. She raised more than $1.1 million in the first quarter, far more than the $196,000 Reichert brought in for his re-election. The 8th District congressman had $520,000 in cash on hand compared with Murray’s $2.8 million.
For Republicans, Murray’s 22-year tenure is wearing thin.
"The mom in tennis shoes has a political style that the voters have become weary of,” Hutchison said.
But, since Inslee is seen as the more beatable statewide Democrat, if the GOP wants to put Murray’s seat in play they'll likely need to live with the gubernatorial field’s leftovers.
“It’s a bit like dominoes,” Hutchison added.
The Senate race is rated Safe Democrat by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.
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