NRSC Has Recruiting Turnaround in Wash.

Posted July 19, 2005 at 6:20pm

The National Republican Senatorial Committee deftly turned a major recruiting miss into a hit this week with the emergence of a top-tier candidate in Washington state.

After revealing Monday that he would step down as chief executive officer of the insurance giant Safeco Corp. effective Aug. 31, Mike McGavick (R) announced Tuesday that he is forming an exploratory committee for a Senate bid.

When GOP rising star Dino Rossi finally announced last week that he would not turn his near-miss 2004 campaign for governor into a bid for the Senate, it seemed Republicans had lost a prime opportunity to aggressively challenge freshman Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) next year.

But NRSC leaders were prepared for Rossi to take a pass and began working McGavick months ago. NRSC Chairwoman Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) met with the former Capitol Hill staffer this spring to discuss his possible candidacy.

“I think they absolutely did [a good job] and everyone involved deserves a great deal of credit,” said Josh Mathis, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist who ran the successful campaign of freshman Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) last year.

McGavick, 47, will stay on as chairman of Safeco, the Seattle-based property and casualty insurance company he put back in the black after taking the helm in 2001, through the end of the year.

McGavick has a successful political track record as well. He ran the 1988 comeback race that returned Slade Gorton (R) to the Senate, and then served as his chief of staff until Gorton’s narrow loss to Cantwell in 2000.

“Mike McGavick is a fantastic candidate and a very, very prominent leader in the Seattle area,” said Washington Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance.

McGavick starts with a leg up on any potential primary opponent. He has already been endorsed by former Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), Gorton, Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna and the state Senate’s Republican leader.

Former Rep. Rick White (R-Wash.), who knocked Cantwell from her House seat in 1994, was seriously weighing a bid but is apparently deferring to McGavick.

White left his job as head of a high-tech trade group and was quietly feeling out party leaders about a Senate campaign. But he told The Associated Press on Monday that he would not run and is expected to back McGavick.

“Some of the candidates, like Rick White, would have been wonderful candidates but [party insiders] came to an agreement that McGavick is the best shot,” Mathis said. “It could not have worked out any better.”

McGavick, who is expected to formally enter the race when he leaves his CEO duties behind next month, does not have a clear field, however.

Diane Tebelius, a Republican national committeewoman who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in the open 8th district House race last year, has not yet agreed to forgo a run. She could not be reached before deadline Tuesday.

While Republican Party leaders are officially saying that they will not play favorites, they have made clear that they would prefer an uncontested primary.

“There won’t be any oxygen left in the room out there,” said one GOP operative who did not want to be named.

“There are still Republicans out there; it’s still a fluid situation,” Vance said. “I hope there’s a consensus candidate out there that Republicans can unite behind.”

Republicans think Cantwell, who ultimately spent almost $13 million of her own money on her 2000 race, is beatable.

“Overall, there’s uniform opinion that Cantwell is extremely vulnerable, so our eventual nominee is going to make this one of the biggest races in the country,” NRSC spokesman Brian Nick said.

As of June 30, Cantwell had banked more than $3 million in her re-election account. A former executive at RealNetworks, Cantwell has said she cannot afford to self fund again because the value of her stock plummeted when the high-tech stock bubble burst.

It is not clear if McGavick will dip into his personal fortune to help finance his campaign, but it appears he could.

He reportedly received $7.3 million in salary and other compensation from Safeco last year alone.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee clearly will try to use McGavick’s work at Safeco, and his rate of compensation, against him. “The fact that the Republicans are getting so excited over getting an insurance industry lobbyist who laid 1,200 people off at the same time he gave himself a 250 percent, $2 million bonus should tell Washington state all it needs to know about Mr. McGavick’s priorities,” DSCC spokesman Phil Singer said.