LYNDEN, Washington -- Dino Rossi came through Washington State's primary on August 17 just a little more bruised than he might have hoped. Though several candidates quit the field when Rossi made his late May announcement that he would run for Patty Murray's Senate seat, businessman Paul Akers and the Sarah Palin-endorsed former Redskins tight end Clint Didier stayed in. The duo held Rossi to 33 percent of the vote.
It was still a win. Rossi's total was enough in the state's open "top two" primary for him to win the right to take on Murray in November, but it produced an awful lot of griping among Republican Party faithful. "He's always ‘on,' " complained one old codger to me over coffee in Lynden. "It's hard to know what he actually believes."
One thing that the 51-year-old Rossi devoutly believes, with ample evidence, is that any Republican who is running for statewide office in Washington is bound to have a hell of a time of it. Rossi has run for governor twice and twice been denied the office, though whether he actually lost the first election is a matter of considerable controversy. In 2004, he narrowly beat Christine Gregoire and was even certified the winner. That would have made him the first Republican resident of the governor's mansion in Olympia since that bona fide Rockefeller Republican Dan Evans, who turned the keys over in the late 1970s.
Unfortunately for Rossi, Democrats then proceeded to use several recounts -- financed, in part, by a large check cut by John Kerry -- and dubious vote counting and vote inventing techniques to pull Gregoire over the line. Rossi fought as far as he could in court, but he never got his big Bush v. Gore moment. He wasn't the only one who held a grudge about that. In 2008, when he ran again, signs spontaneously sprang up all over the state asking voters to "Re-elect Rossi." He did far better in that election against the tax-hiking, budget-busting Gregoire than John McCain did against Barack Obama, but an ebbing tide marooned most Republican boats on the West Coast, as early news of an Obama victory depressed voter turnout.
At that point, Rossi seems to have thrown in the towel politically. He turned his attention to real estate and didn't bother with political niceties. Seattle's commie alt-weekly the Stranger reported, "The night before he announced he was running for U.S. Senate, Rossi made a paid appearance at a Bellevue seminar designed to, among other things, teach investors how to profit off of foreclosures." The Stranger admitted this was "not illegal, not unheard of...but definitely politically tone deaf," and the picture the reporter painted only added real weight to the charge:
At the seminar, wearing a gold tie over a crisp white shirt, Rossi told attendees, "Now is the time to buy, especially investment properties." The next morning, he released a YouTube video announcing his candidacy -- and in that video, he bemoaned the fact that "housing values have plummeted" and that America is "on the edge of a fiscal cliff." Well, which is it? Bad times for Americans with worthless homes? Or good times for people like Rossi, who know how to make a profit from the financial nightmares of others?
REAL ESTATE REMAINS a sore point for Rossi. When I caught up with him in June to interview him for Real Clear Politics, I asked what had caused America's recent recession. (Hint: it rhymes with "mousing rubble.") Rossi stepped past the question to complain about "unbridled spending, uncontrollable spending" of the Obama administration. It's certainly plausible to say that those things have not helped, or even slowed or held back a recovery, but economists would agree that they are not what got us into this mess in the first place.
Another thing Rossi doesn't like to talk about is the person who beat him twice. I asked what I thought was a slow pitch, right over the plate: what did he think of the recent economic performance of Gregoire and fellow local Democrats? They had just hiked taxes and fees by hundreds of millions of dollars to balance the state budget, but Rossi said he was not at all interested in going there. His laser beam-like focus would be "on running for the United States Senate and Patty Murray happens to be in that seat at this point in time."
Rossi's entry into the race for the Senate was late and disorganized because he really didn't want to do it. He said in June that a run for the Senate "wasn't on my radar 10 months ago, but when they passed the health care bill it was clear to me that these folks in D.C. were out of control." That explains why he waited until 2010 to announce his candidacy, but not why he waited until late May. What changed his mind?
WHAT HAPPENED IS THAT he was drafted. National Journal's Hotline reported in March that Rossi was seriously considering running after receiving a visit from National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Sen. John Cornyn and encouraging calls and messages from people all over the country. Moreover, my best good guess is that an astute political observer whispered an important number into Rossi's ear: 1994.
Washington is a Democratic state by default only. Registered Independents far outpace Ds and Rs, which has made elections here unusually volatile. Before the 1994 elections, the state had one Republican in the House of Representatives and eight Democrats. That all changed overnight as voters ushered in a delegation that was 7-2 Republican. They turned sitting House Speaker Tom Foley out of office and elected Republican populist Linda Smith with a hastily organized write-in campaign.
True, the Democrats chipped away at those gains. The current House delegation is 6-3 in the Democrats' favor. Earlier this year, the Cook Political Report rated four of the state's districts as "Solid D," one as "Likely D," and one a "toss up," for a Republican gain of one or two seats at most. That Murray could lose her Senate seat was almost out of the question.
Now it is becoming clear that more races are up for grabs. Cook calls the Rossi-Murray race a "toss up" and my own Real Clear Politics polling experts concur. At press time, the official RCP polling average had Murray at 47.8 percent to Rossi's 46 percent, a razor-thin spread. The polling results put Murray in the sudden death danger zone for incumbents of under 50 percent. Those results were given added heft when Murray came through the August 17 primary with only 46 percent of all voters. (Rossi isn't doing badly in the money race, either. Murray started at a $6 million advantage. Rossi raised $1.4 million in just over a month.)
Ask Rossi about these polling numbers and he will likely roll his eyes -- at least publicly. He told me that his campaign would "compare and contrast" his plans with Murray's record. By that he meant that his campaign would attack Murray relentlessly from every conceivable angle and try to drive down her favorables. His media operation has been almost hyperactive and always on the attack.
To wit, the press releases and blog posts from the Rossi campaign range from boringly earnest but necessary ("Tech Industry Faces Decline Under D.C.'s Current Policies") to biting ("Another Day, Another Murray Broken Promise, This Time to Seniors") to scathing ("Murray Donor Freddie Mac Wants ANOTHER Taxpayer Funded Bailout"), sarcastic ("Patty Murray Wakes Up, Realizes Future Generations Shouldn't Pay For Today's Spending"), and, well, surreal ("It's 5:00 Somewhere, But It's 4:20 At Washington State University").
Rossi has hit Murray on everything from pork barreling to nuclear waste disposal in the Yucca Mountains to unemployment benefit extensions that weren't deficit neutral to the financial reform bill. "Like Good Friends Do, Patty Murray and Wall Street Take Care of Each Other," Rossi's press release helpfully explained.
ROSSI WANTS VOTERS TO FOCUS on Murray's failings and foibles, and that might be enough to win him the election. Murray has, of course, a very liberal voting record, along with a few other possible liabilities. She has been in D.C. since she won election as the "mom in tennis shoes" in 1992. Her image has changed from citizen legislator to self-interested insider. The normally sympathetic Seattle Times reported in August that Murray, who has a seat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, is the senator who has racked up the second-highest amount in contributions from lobbyists. She came behind only embattled Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid.
To beat Murray, though, Rossi may have to address some lingering questions from Republicans, or at least find ways to make them go away. Rossi points out that as chairman of the Washington State senate's ways and means committee, he managed to close a $2.7 billion budget deficit without raising taxes. He also demonstrated a fondness for certain pork projects that benefited his suburban district east of Seattle. That might not matter except that he'd inherit a much bigger fiscal hole in D.C. than anyone in Olympia could ever comprehend. Some serious radicalism will probably be necessary if the next Congress wants to start climbing out. Republican voters are suspicious that his tendency to trim won't help.
Speaking of radicalism, primary challenger Didier has refused to endorse Rossi unless Rossi meets three demands. The most controversial is that he must introduce the Sanctity of Life Act in the Senate, which would allow local jurisdictions to regulate abortion quite apart from any Supreme Court rulings.
Rossi, a Catholic father of four (and the youngest of seven children), understands just how volatile the question can be with the Evergreen State electorate. He is a genuine social conservative -- he's called himself pro-life in the past, supported parental consent laws, and opposed gay marriage -- but he prefers not to talk about it unless absolutely necessary, and maybe not even then. When I asked him when was the last time Washington voters elected a pro-life senator, he would say only, "I'm not really sure about that. You'd have to go research that yourself." (Answer: never.)
IF ROSSI CAN GET most Republicans on board, then he has a better-than-even shot at beating Murray in November. The anti-incumbent and anti-Democratic mood in the Washington electorate is as severe as I've ever seen it. In Whatcom County, in the northwest corner of the state, my friend Vincent Buys, a Republican contractor and first-time office-seeker, managed to best an eight-term incumbent and state House ways and means chairwoman in the primary vote. However, that still leaves the general election.
The sense that one gets from talking to Rossi is that he feels this is a contest he cannot afford to lose. He really thinks that he can pull it off, and that his win will have historic consequences. A recent ad for a joint campaign appearance with surprise Massachusetts senator Scott Brown simply said, "Scott Brown-41, Dino Rossi-51." And what if that doesn't work out?
"It's clear that we're at a crisis level right now," Rossi told me. "People understand that our country has a serious problem here that needs to be dealt with: the spending and the debt. We're about ready to leave to our children something that's less than what our parents gave to us, and that's unconscionable. The opportunities are dwindling, and the debt and the problems are what our children are going to inherit. That's not acceptable." Time to do something about it.