Parties Watching Murray, Rossi Vote Totals for Clues

Posted August 17, 2010 at 5:00am

Democrats are fighting to hold two seats in Washington state this year — the open 3rd district and Patty Murray’s Senate seat — and Tuesday’s primaries could offer the clearest evidence yet of where things stand in the Democratic-leaning state.

The dramatics of the Senate race are all in the vote totals registered in the fairly new “top two” primary, which the state is using in federal elections for just the second time.

Murray and Republican Dino Rossi, a two-time unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, are widely expected to advance to the general election. The only questions that remain are their vote totals and what can be gleaned from them in a contest that pits candidates of every party against each other with the top two vote-getters advancing — no matter their party label.

Gaming some on expectation, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a memo Monday saying it expects Rossi to take at least 46 percent of the vote, despite facing upstart challenges from former professional football player Clint Didier and inventor Paul Akers, who joined forces against Rossi late in the campaign.

That number is based on Rossi’s vote total in a crowded 2008 gubernatorial primary field. Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire and Rossi advanced to the general election with 48 percent and 46 percent, respectively. Gregoire went on to win, 53 percent to 47 percent.

While Didier and Akers hardly caused trouble for Rossi’s primary prospects, Democrats believe the two conservatives forced Rossi to move to the right, a potentially dangerous place to be in a state that President Barack Obama carried with 58 percent.

“While Rossi is expected to beat his conservative opponents, make no mistake about it: the damage in the primary is already done. Rossi is running as an unabashed far right conservative,” DSCC Executive Director J.B. Poersch wrote in the memo.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the state are lowering Murray’s expectations, with one close to the campaign saying they expect her to finish in the low 40s. The thinking goes that with Murray a shoe-in to make the general, a portion of her base will either not participate or perhaps vote for one of Rossi’s top GOP competitors.

Either way, a vote total below 45 percent could set off some alarms within the party. The previous poll in the race, taken in late July by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, found Murray at 47 percent and the three Republicans totaling 47 percent, with Rossi taking 33 percent.

State GOP Chairman Luke Esser expects Murray to finish “a fair bit below 50 percent, which for any incumbent — especially a three-term incumbent — is cause for concern.”

Obama will be in Seattle on Tuesday headlining a fundraising luncheon and private reception for Murray. Esser said that although the president’s visit will be great for Murray’s coffers, the event helps Republicans in the long run by “cementing in the minds of voters that Patty Murray is part of what’s wrong with Washington, D.C.”

State Democratic Chairman Dwight Pelz said he’s “not putting a lot of stock in” the results, whether they appear positive or negative for Murray. “With the ‘top two’ and a contested race between the Republicans, it’s hard to draw any conclusions,” he said.

“This is a blue state, and our job is to get her elected in an anti-incumbent year that favors Republicans,” Pelz added. “We think we can make that happen.”

In the coastal 3rd district, Democratic Rep. Brian Baird’s retirement opened up a moderate seat ripe for Republican picking. Since being elected to Congress in 1998, Baird was never elected with less than 55 percent. However, George W. Bush carried the district by 2 points in 2000 and 2004, while Obama won it by 7 points in 2008.

Pelz called it a “classic American swing district,” adding that “if Democrats slide in national polls over the next two to three months, we’re going to have trouble there, no question about it.”

Attempting to hold the seat for Democrats is Denny Heck, a businessman and former state House Majority Leader who is running against Democratic-controlled Washington, D.C. His campaign theme: “Give ‘Em Heck.”

“Here in our Washington, we all feel the same,” Heck says in his lone TV ad of the primary. “We hear politicians in Washington, D.C., talking about creating jobs and think, ‘What do you really know about it?'”

Democrats privately say that state Rep. Jaime Herrera, a former legislative aide to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), is the strongest of the Republican contenders. Battling Heck and Herrera for a ticket to the general election are Republicans David Castillo, a former deputy assistant U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs, and David Hedrick, a tea party activist.

“We’re in a blue area that is very conservative,” said Pacific County Republican Chairwoman Nansen Malin, who supports Herrera. “Even Heck is running on a ‘Give Congress Heck’ mantra. The voters want to replace Baird with a more fiscal conservative.”

Another race the national parties are watching is in the eastern exurbs of Seattle, where Republican Rep. Dave Reichert is again fighting to hold the Democratic-leaning 8th district. It’s one of nearly 10 districts Democrats have at least an outside chance of picking up in November.

After two straight unsuccessful challenges by liberal Darcy Burner, another wealthy former Microsoft executive is aiming for Reichert. This time it’s Suzan DelBene, whose campaign is playing up her business experience in this high-unemployment election year.

Reichert remains a popular figure from his role in capturing the “Green River Killer” while serving as King County sheriff, but he has yet to entrench himself in this difficult district for Republicans. Plus, the formerly friendly Seattle Times editorial board recently endorsed both DelBene and Republican Yarrow Point Town Councilman Tim Dillon over Reichert.

The three races headline the state’s second top two primary in a major election cycle. In 2003, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the state’s 70-year-old blanket primary unconstitutional. The new, nonpartisan iteration of the blanket format was challenged in court until the state won an appeal from the Supreme Court in March 2008.

The primary is nearly all by mail, as only Pierce County still offers voters polling places. The secretary of state’s office will begin posting election results on its website at 11 p.m. EST.