There Are Plenty of Reasons to Keep Your Eye on Patty Murray

Posted March 12, 2010 at 4:18pm

No, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) isn’t likely to stand out in a crowd. She probably could walk through Washington, D.C.’s Union Station during lunch and draw barely a notice.

[IMGCAP(1)]The three-term Democrat from Washington state isn’t as loud as many of her colleagues or as recognizable as those Senators who make the news every night. She’s not physically intimidating. There is nothing shocking about her voting record.

But that doesn’t mean that Murray, who serves on the Appropriations and Budget committees, is someone you can afford to ignore — or underestimate.

When she first ran, Republican strategists didn’t take Murray, who ran as a “mom in tennis shoes,” all that seriously. And when she upset GOP Rep. Rod Chandler in the 1992 Senate race, they figured that she was a political accident who wouldn’t last more than a term. But she beat a Republican Congresswoman in 1998 and another Republican Congressman in 2004, each time winning comfortably.

On Capitol Hill, Murray has been equally successful. One Democratic insider I spoke with talked glowingly about her staff, saying, “Her staff is always in the top five [on the Hill], and that’s a reflection of her seriousness.”

Murray, who turns 60 in October, currently is the secretary of the Democratic caucus, making her the fourth-ranking Democrat in the Senate behind Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the vice chairman of the Democratic caucus. Schumer’s post was created for him after the 2006 elections (and because of his success at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee).

With Reid’s political future very much in doubt after November, surviving Democrats may need to appoint a new party leader after the midterms, and that could give Murray, who chaired the DSCC in the 2002 cycle, an opportunity to move up the ladder.

No woman has ever been a party leader or Whip in the Senate, so history is against Murray. But, according to some Democratic Capitol Hill insiders, if a nasty fight for leader develops between Durbin and Schumer after the midterms, as many expect, Murray could emerge either as an alternative to the two combative, in-your-face men or as an heir to one of the posts they leave vacant.

Indeed, it’s impossible to imagine the loser of a Durbin-Schumer fight becoming the party’s Whip, which would open the position for Murray, if she wants it.

“She has a fairly high level of elbows, and she is aware of it. There is no reason why her colleagues automatically would cut her out,” one Democrat said of Murray’s chance of moving up to Whip.

But even if Murray doesn’t move up her party’s leadership ladder, there is another reason to keep your eye on her.

Republicans are seriously contesting eight Senate seats currently held by Democrats — North Dakota, Delaware, Indiana, Nevada, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Colorado — and they are looking for at least two more seats to put into play in the hopes of netting 10 seats and taking back the Senate later this year.

With former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) looking at a run in Wisconsin and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) looking potentially vulnerable against the right challenger, those two states could be in the mix. But Washington could also be one of the states in play in November, and that makes Murray a potential Republican target.

Murray’s standing in public polling doesn’t suggest great weakness. Her favorability ratings are over 50 percent in published polls, and she holds comfortable leads over announced Republican challengers. But she trails unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial nominee Dino Rossi in hypothetical ballot tests in the last three public polls.

Unfortunately, all of those surveys were conducted by Rasmussen Research, which uses automated technology and is widely derided by Democrats as being biased toward Republicans. So for many, it’s hard to be sure where Murray really stands with voters.

Rossi has lost two gubernatorial bids, very narrowly in 2004 and by a slightly wider margin in 2008, and he probably has one more serious run before he becomes classified as a perennial candidate. Initially, he dismissed GOP appeals for him to take on Murray, but he has grown increasingly intrigued by the possibility of a Senate run as the election cycle has evolved.

Even Democrats acknowledge that Rossi would be a serious challenger for Murray.

“If he runs, the race would be competitive,” one Democratic insider told me. “But Rossi no longer is new or fresh. And Sen. Murray still has the brand of a different voice in Washington. She isn’t going to lose that race.”

Republican operatives believe that even without Rossi they can give Murray a run for her money. They argue that Susan Hutchison is likely to run if Rossi doesn’t, and that the attractive former KIRO-TV anchor, who lost a bid for King County (Seattle) executive in November, “puts the race in play.”

Murray remains a clear favorite for re-election right now, but 2010 has the potential to be a very, very interesting year for her.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.