Smart political observers may not be surprised to see a rematch between Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi for the governorship of Washington state after the infamous, nail-biting recounts of 2004. What might be unexpected, however, is the fact the current race is a real opportunity for a Republican pickup, even given the increasingly deep blue politics of the Evergreen State.
John Kerry won Washington handily, as did Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell in recent election cycles. Democrats hold a firm 6-3 lead among members of the U.S. House and are now approaching super-majorities in both chambers of the state's Legislature. So why is Rossi in strong position to threaten the Democratic incumbent?
Rossi's strength is rooted in his powerfully effective 2004 campaign. His direct message of reform and leadership as a remedy to a stagnant and impotent state capital was compelling then, and remains so today.
Also, the much-publicized antics of the King County Elections bureaucracy in the post-Election Day counts and recounts did much to foster long-term resentment among Republicans and independents.
King County ended up having thousands more votes counted than it had registered voters credited with casting ballots. After a failed court challenge to the final election results, soundpolitics.com blogger Stefan Sharkansky unearthed evidence from a less-than-forthcoming King County Elections office that hundreds of ballots -- not cast by lawfully registered voters -- were tallied in election results.
That left grassroots Republicans spoiling for a fight in 2008.
BUT WHAT EXPLAINS Rossi's strong poll numbers in this increasingly Democratic state? Independent surveys this past Fall had Gregoire consistently under 50 percent in hypothetical rematches with Rossi, holding at most a five-point lead.
Gregoire's tenure as governor has been cursed with the same inertia and lack of decisive leadership that plagued her Democratic predecessor, Gary Locke. On Gregoire's watch, the state budget has ballooned, leaving even the slightly left-of-center Seattle Times editorial board displeased. By comparison, Rossi ran in 2004 on the strength of his bipartisan work with Locke to balance and restrain the state budget.
Meanwhile, the state looks incapable of decisive, timely action to replace two aging state highways in the heart of the Seattle metropolitan area: the Alaska Way Viaduct on the Seattle waterfront and the 520 bridge, connecting the city with its Eastside suburbs across Lake Washington. Year after year of inaction on those projects, and other long overdue transportation improvements in the rapidly growing Puget Sound region are an increasing sore spot for voters who are otherwise regularly sending Democrats to represent them in Olympia and Washington, D.C.
Worse, the state's major news stories continue to shine poor light on Olympia. The state has again delayed implementation of part of its 10th grade WASL test as a high school graduation exam after students continued to score poorly in math and science. Recently, an entire ferry route was rendered inoperable when the outdated boats operating the state run were deemed unsafe and no suitable replacements were available.
Beyond voter unease with Olympia, Republican and Democrat observers see a general mood of uncertainty among the Washington state populace heading into 2008. While independent voters, especially in Seattle's suburbs, are increasingly supportive of Democrats in most races, discomfort with overweening government is still high.
A statewide initiative to require a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise taxes was just approved in November, while a taxing measure in the Puget Sound area to fund transit and roads projects failed. The overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature scurried back to Olympia for a late November special session, at the call of the governor, to reinstate a voter-approved, statewide cap on property tax increases after the original measure was overturned in the courts.
ON TOP OF THIS is the general dour perception of Gregoire. She is known more as a technocrat than a warmth-inspiring politician. In contrast, Rossi's 2004 success was due in large part to his personal ability to sell himself as a credible, serious leader to fill a void that existed even then in the state capital.
That contrast in personalities contributed to Gregoire underperforming the rest of the Democratic ticket in 2004. Rossi's message of reform that resonated with many non-Republicans and Gregoire coaxed little affection from her own Democratic base. In the closest thing Washington has to a swing county, Snohomish, just north of Seattle, Gregoire lost to Rossi even as voters decisively selected Democrats for Congress and the state Legislature.
Gregoire's enthusiasm gap among her natural allies has been rekindled by the recent special session to enshrine voter-approved property tax protections. While Gregoire and the Legislature were bowing to political reality, grassroots Democrats and special interest groups fumed.
Consequently, while Gregoire was struggling with the not-so-inspiring affairs of state and her own restive base, Rossi came out of the gate in October running hard on issues important to suburban swing voters such as education and transportation. Though many of Rossi's fellow Washington Republicans have struggled mightily on those topics, he is espousing a strategy similar to his 2004 run: understand the issues voters care about, apply conservative principles to those problems in a realistic agenda, then run with passion against the inert status quo of Olympia.
While the governor's fundraising has been strong, Rossi's own collections since entering the race mere weeks ago have been startling. As of November 30th he had already raised over $1.1 million and is likely to close much of Gregoire's current 3 to1 cash-on-hand advantage during the required fundraising freeze for state officials during the coming legislative session.
It all adds up to a race in a blue state where an incumbent governor has her hands full. Latent Democratic strength in Washington makes the challenge a difficult one, but "Governor Rossi" in 2009 isn't at all far-fetched.
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