The Other Washington

A Pair of House Members Are Seen as the GOP’s Best Hope for Ousting Murray Next Year

Posted February 5, 2003 at 6:21pm

With Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) publicly articulating his ambitions for higher office this week, the political world awaits word from his colleague, Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), about whether she’ll run for Senate in 2004.

State and national Republican leaders have suggested that either Dunn or Nethercutt would make a fine challenger next year to two-term Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

And while Nethercutt seems only too happy to oblige, Dunn continues to remain mum about her plans.

“Jennifer just has not decided yet,” said Jen Burita, the spokeswoman in Dunn’s House office.

Political insiders say that Dunn’s decision could be weeks — or even months — away. While some Republicans privately fret that they may be losing precious time without an obvious nominee — especially with Murray still on the defensive over remarks she made in December about Osama bin Laden — a Kabuki dance of sorts involving Nethercutt, Dunn, the Bush White House and other Republican heavies is under way.

Last month, a flurry of news articles in both Washingtons implied that Bush’s senior political adviser, Karl Rove, had put Dunn at the top of his recruiting list for the Senate race, followed by Nethercutt. But in recent days, GOP leaders have sought to erase the impression that there is a pecking order.

“We’ve talked to a lot of people [about the Washington Senate race],” said Ken Mehlman, the White House political director. “That story [about Dunn] was overstated.”

Still, in an interview this week with The Associated Press in which he acknowledged that he is considering running for Senate or governor next year, Nethercutt said he would defer to his colleague if she decided to run for Senate. He could not be reached for comment by Roll Call this week.

“I don’t know if she’ll do it or not, but I would support her,” Nethercutt told the AP. “I’ve made it clear that I think she would make a great candidate and I would encourage her to run. I don’t see the sense of a Republican primary.”

Mary Lane, communications director for the Washington state Republican Party, said GOP leaders would ensure that Dunn and Nethercutt did not oppose each other in a primary.

“I’ve got to believe there’s a good chance that one of them runs,” said Hans Kaiser, a D.C.-based Republican consultant who has frequently worked in Washington state. He said Dunn, who represents a suburban and rural district outside of Seattle, knows what it takes to win a Senate seat in Washington and is likely weighing whether she believes she can prevail.

Dunn was sitting on a hefty $879,000 in her campaign treasury at the end of the year, which is about $100,000 less than what Murray had. Nethercutt, by contrast, had just $74,000 on hand.

Both Dunn and Nethercutt are considered capable fundraisers, however, and both are scheduled to be the featured speakers at Lincoln Day celebrations outside of their House districts later this month — Dunn at a dinner in Grays Harbor County, Nethercutt at a breakfast in Tacoma.

Dunn is a more cautious politician than Nethercutt, who continues to portray himself as a giant killer after knocking off then-Speaker Tom Foley (D) to win his House seat in 1994. He told the AP that he regards Foley as a far tougher foe than Murray or Gov. Gary Locke (D), who is also up for re-election next year.

“I’ve been through the steepest challenge a guy has ever been through,” Nethercutt said.

Gauging Dunn’s level of interest in a statewide race is harder.

At the beginning of the year, her name surfaced as a candidate for executive director of the Air Transport Association. While she didn’t get the high-paying job, some political observers saw her dalliance with the airline industry as a message to national Republican leaders to ante up sufficient resources for the battle against Murray.

But Nethercutt’s recent statements about his interest in running for the Senate may also be a bit of gamesmanship, an effort to smoke out Dunn and get her to declare her intentions sooner rather than later. In fact, some Democrats believe that Dunn won’t make the Senate race if she isn’t promised some plum position from the White House in case she loses.

Washington state Democrats are already buzzing over an article in Tuesday’s King County (Wash.) Journal that they believe portrays Dunn as ineffective. The article discussed how President Bush’s new budget proposal would harm a public-private partnership that is purchasing and preserving forest land in the Cascade Mountains.

“Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn is not on the Appropriations Committee, but she is a rising star in the House,” Fred Munson, spokesman for the Cascades Conservation Partnership, is quoted as saying in a passage that the Democrats are mentally underlining. “She should be able to help us. It’s unfortunate so far that it hasn’t worked.”

Democrats are also sharpening their attack lines against Nethercutt, who they believe is too conservative to be elected statewide. They note that while he campaigned as the antithesis of a career politician, he has broken his term-limit pledge and now appears to be shopping for a better position — Senator or governor.

“He’s saying he just wants to continue to be a politician,” said one Democratic operative. “The jobs are actually quite different.”

Publicly, Democrats are confident Murray, who just finished a stint as chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and was chairwoman of a key Appropriations subcommittee when the Democrats had the majority, is well-positioned for re-election.

“She’s served the state of Washington well and she’s done a good job for the party,” said Kimberlin Love, a spokeswoman for the DSCC. “We’re going to support her — Democrats are going to support her — to the fullest.”

In a state that remains solidly, if not spectacularly, Democratic — Washington has voted for the Democrat in every gubernatorial election since 1984 and every presidential election since 1988 — Murray certainly starts with advantages. And in a race against Nethercutt, whose district covers the sparsely populated eastern third of the state, she’d also have the advantage of being the only candidate from the electorally decisive Seattle region.

But Republicans are still taking potshots at Murray for remarks she made late last year at a Vancouver, Wash., high school about Osama bin Laden’s enduring popularity in certain corners of the Muslim world. She told 40 honors students that bin Laden has thrived in places where the United States hasn’t made an impact.

“He has been in many countries that are riddled with poverty,” she said. “He’s been out in these countries for decades building roads, building schools, building infrastructure, building day care facilities, building health care facilities, and the people are extremely grateful. It made their lives better.”

Critics immediately jumped on the statement. The Washington state Republican Party challenged Murray to prove that the United States hasn’t done enough to aid people in the countries where bin Laden is active.

In the days that followed, Murray released the full text of her comments to the students, plus a Defense Department briefing paper on bin Laden from 1998, plus statements from foreign policy experts supporting her conclusions.

Lane, the Washington GOP operative, said Murray’s remarks “made her more vulnerable” in 2004. But Todd Webster, Murray’s communications director, said his boss is confident that the majority of Washingtonians have moved on.

“While the extreme fringes may want to demagogue and do more, the overall mainstream majority agreed with her,” Webster said. “Colin Powell and President Bush agree with the principle that the U.S. needs to do more in these countries.”

Still, Murray’s statements brought her unwanted publicity at the very least, and a club that opponents will be only too happy to use.

Meanwhile, Murray could also be hurt by a divided Democratic Party. Locke, a two-term governor, is lagging in the polls, and a former state Supreme Court justice, Phil Talmadge, plans to challenge him in the Democratic primary next year, arguing that Locke has moved away from traditional Democratic values. King County Executive Ron Sims (D) may also run.

Whatever decisions Dunn and Nethercutt make about a statewide race in 2004 could have implications for control of the House, especially in Dunn’s swing district, which gave Al Gore (D) a 49 percent to 47 percent edge over Bush in the 2000 presidential election. Already three candidates are talking about running for Dunn’s seat if she doesn’t, according to The Seattle Times: King County Councilor Rob McKenna (R), state Sen. Dino Rossi (R) and three-time Democratic nominee Heidi Behrens-Benedict.

Despite sending Foley to Congress for three decades, Nethercutt’s district is leaning ever more Republican.

While it is clear that Dunn and Nethercutt represent the Republicans’ Plans A and B for the race against Murray, there is no obvious Plan C. That doesn’t worry GOP strategist Kaiser, however, who senses change is afoot in a state that prospered in the late 1990s but is struggling now.

“The mood in Washington [state] now — they’re looking for something,” he said. “Getting [a Republican to run for Senate] in the next couple of months I don’t think is really imperative.”