A look at Washington

Posted March 14, 2003 at 3:59pm

There are few places where the 2004 election is more eagerly anticipated than in the state of Washington, where a Senator, the governor and eight other statewide officials all come before the voters — along with the nine House Members, the entire state House of Representatives and half the state Senate. [IMGCAP(1)]

“It’s going to be a big year out here,” said Chris Vance, the Washington state Republican Party chairman.

But considering all that is at stake, the political picture has been slow to come into focus. Many political observers are nervously waiting for three key decisions to be made:

• Will Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) take on two-term Sen. Patty Murray (D)?

• Will Gov. Gary Locke (D), already facing at least one strong challenger in his own party, run for re-election?

• Will multimillionaire businessman John Stanton seek the Republican gubernatorial nomination?

The answers to those questions will help set the political tone in the state next year — and could also affect the plans of dozens of ambitious politicians lower down the political food chain.

“Politics is about patience,” Vance said.

It is Dunn’s plans that have national Republicans on edge. The moderate six-term Congresswoman is considered by far the strongest potential challenger to Murray in a state that is still largely dominated by Democrats, and she is now expected to make her decision by the end of April.

If Dunn doesn’t run, Rep. George Nethercutt is considered the likeliest Republican to challenge Murray, but despite his very public interest in moving up the political ladder, that is by no means a certainty. Nethercutt continues to be a favorite of national conservatives

thanks to his 1994 defeat of then-Speaker Thomas Foley (D), but he comes from sparsely populated Eastern Washington and may be too conservative to win a statewide race.

While Dunn, a former state party chairwoman, decides what to do — and there is some suggestion that, at age 61, she is considering leaving Congress for more lucrative work in the private sector — there is no shortage of would-be Congressmen ready to run if she leaves her seat.

The 8th district, which takes in the suburbs east of Seattle and some rural areas, is a true tossup. It would have provided Al Gore (D) with a 1.7-point victory over George W. Bush (R) in the 2000 presidential election, and Democrats had their best showing ever in legislative elections there last year, picking up two House seats that they hadn’t held for decades.

“That district is shifting,” said Jim Kainber, executive director of the Washington Democratic Party.

Of a long list of possible candidates, the leading Democrats there include state Rep. Laura Ruderman, who is chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus and an aggressive fundraiser and political operative; freshman state Rep. Ross Hunter, a multimillionaire former Microsoft executive who could spend millions of his own money on a campaign if necessary; and Seattle TV newscaster Tony Ventrella, who has been a public figure for 20 years and has a long history of motivational speaking and charitable good works in addition to his day job.

Predicting the outcome of that race would be impossible.

Similarly, the Republicans would have at least two top-tier contenders: King County Councilman Rob McKenna and state Sen. Dino Rossi, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. McKenna is also contemplating a run for state attorney general.

Kainber said Democrats are emboldened by their victories in Dunn’s territory and predicted that volunteers from heavily Democratic Seattle would flock to the 8th district to help a Democrat in an open-seat race.

“There’s so little action in Seattle that Democrats have gotten very keen on the East side,” he said. “Democrats think nothing of driving 15 minutes to walk a precinct.”

In fact, Seattle is such a Democratic stronghold that if entrenched eight-term Rep. Jim McDermott (D) chose to move on, dozens of Democrats would scramble to succeed him. That isn’t likely to happen in 2004, but there could still be some other competitive House races in the state.

Although he has never wracked up huge margins in his suburban Seattle district, Rep. Jay Inslee (D) is considered fairly safe. The seat would be in play if he moved on, and he could run for governor if Locke doesn’t seek re-election. Regardless of what Inslee does, former state Rep. Joe Marine (R), who took 42 percent of the vote last year, is expected to try again.

In the northern 2nd district, second-term Rep. Rick Larsen (D) has won with 50 percent and 51 percent of the vote the past two cycles. Democrats believe Larsen is solidifying his hold on another tossup district that would have given Gore a 1.8-point victory over Bush. But Republicans are high on former CIA operative Herb Meyer, who finished a close second in the 2002 GOP primary and is preparing to run again.

Republicans also have their sights on 3rd district Rep. Brian Baird (D), who confounds the GOP with his strong showings despite the fact that Bush would have taken the district by 2 points in 2000. Any chance the 2002 Republican nominee, state Sen. Joe Zarelli, had of being competitive vanished after he admitted receiving state welfare benefits even while he was on the state payroll. He took just 37 percent of the vote.

Rob Nichols, a U.S. Treasury Department official and one-time aide to Dunn and former Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), may run there.

South of Seattle, four-term Rep. Adam Smith (D), who is just 37 years old, has solidified his hold on the 9th district. But Smith is mentioned as a possible candidate for state attorney general if there is a vacancy, and Republicans believe they can be competitive if he leaves.

Vance, a 40-year-old former state legislator, is the most prominent Republican in the 9th, though he got just 35 percent of the vote against Smith in 2000.

While there could be several hard-fought Congressional races on the docket in 2004, the governor’s election also promises to be fascinating, and it could impact several other races down the ballot.

Republicans, who have not elected a governor since 1980, are emboldened by poll numbers showing Locke’s popularity plummeting. And they believe they have two potentially strong candidates in Stanton, the founder and CEO of Western Wireless, who is a co-owner of the Seattle Mariners baseball team and Seattle Supersonics basketball team, and King County Sheriff Dave Reichert.

Republicans have urged Stanton to run for statewide office before, but he has demurred. He’d probably be the GOP establishment’s first choice this time because of his deep pockets, but Reichert, the chief law-enforcement officer in Washington’s biggest county (a county that includes Seattle), is also popular.

Reichert is likely to run for King County executive in 2005 if he doesn’t run for governor next year. That job is considered a springboard to the governor’s mansion — Locke had it, and so did the last Republican governor, John Spellman.

Federico Cruz-Uribe, director of the Pierce County Department of Public Health, known for his controversial positions on tobacco advertising and AIDS data, has also expressed an interest in running for governor.

“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes discussions right now about the governor’s race,” said Vance, who has also been mentioned as a possible contender.

On the Democratic side, while Locke deliberates about a third term (he has about $400,000 in his campaign treasury), former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge is already aggressively seeking the nomination. While his fundraising has been lackluster, Talmadge has been appealing to progressive Democratic activists — a smart move, with most unions already mad at Locke for his austere budgets — and he has already been endorsed by Frank Chopp, the Speaker of the state House.

But it’s way too early to say if Talmadge will be competitive. He isn’t well-known around the state. And when he was a state Senate leader in the 1980s, his style was so brusque that his opponents distributed buttons that said, “I’ve Been Philled.”

Meanwhile, two other leading Democrats are poised to jump into the governor’s race if Locke decides to retire: King County Executive Ron Sims, the Democrats’ unsuccessful nominee against Gorton in 1994, and Attorney General Christine Gregoire. The entry of one or both in the governor’s race would further shake up Washington politics.

Seven of nine statewide offices are held by Democrats, and in most cases the incumbents are expected to glide easily to re-election. In addition to Locke and Gregoire, the other retirement possibility is 55-year-old state Treasurer Mike Murphy (D), who is famous for living with his wife on a houseboat.