A Toss-Up In Washington State Senate Race

All Things Considered continues its look at political races across the nation — today, the toss-up for the Senate in Washington state. Sen. Patty Murray has held the seat for 18 years. Her Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, says that her time in the Senate has been ineffective, and that she needs to go. The race is seen as a toss-up by many political watchers. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Matt Barreto, political science professor at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We're going to check in now on another campaign on the West Coast, the race for the U.S. Senate in Washington State.

The three-term incumbent, Democrat Patty Murray, is being challenged by Republican Dino Rossi. He's a former state senator who ran twice for governor, unsuccessfully.

Political science Professor Matt Barreto joins me to talk about the race. He directs the Washington Poll at the University of Washington in Seattle. And this Senate race, I understand, is now considered a toss up. Whats the polling showing?

Professor MATT BARRETO (Director, Washington Poll, University of Washington): Yeah, thats right. The latest polling, if you go back earlier in the summer, it was very close. But now, Patty Murray is starting to establish a little bit of a lead in a couple of different polls from different organizations, but still not eclipsing that 51 percent threshold. And so there's still some undecided voters.

And while she is pulling ahead, Dino Rossi is still within striking distance of catching Patty Murray.

BLOCK: Well, Senator Murray has been on the attack. And I wanted to play part of an ad thats she's running. This one takes Dino Rossi to task for saying that the new financial reform law passed by Congress should be repealed. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Announcer #1: Dino chose his Wall Street contributors over protecting our savings. Rossi took the big banks' money, then turned his back on taxpayers. Dino Rossi's not on our side.

BLOCK: Okay, so that's an ad from Patty Murray, and let's listen to one now from the Republican, Dino Rossi.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DINO ROSSI (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Washington): After 18 years in Washington, D.C., Patty Murray really has nothing better to do than attack me. It's clear that the people in charge, including Senator Murray, can't admit what they're doing isn't working or when it's failed.

BLOCK: Matt Barreto, is there a strong anti-incumbent energy across Washington state, do you think?

Mr. BARRETO: You know, it's not quite as strong here in Washington state, and I think that's true of the West Coast in general, as it is in other parts of the country.

There is part of that anti-incumbent sentiment, but it's been a little bit more insulated here. Things like the Tea Party movement haven't been nearly as strong here in Washington state. For example, if you go back to the primary, the Republican primary here in Washington state, Dino Rossi did not attend a single Tea Party event and, in fact, turned down invitations to speak, thinking that they would be too extreme for a more centrist Republican like himself in Washington state to get elected.

And I think that Dino Rossi played it right by trying to stay in the center, and itll remain to be seen whether or not he does get that enthusiasm because the Tea Party candidate during the primary never endorsed him, in fact. And so there could be a little bit of a split, and there could be a little bit of a hangover from that primary.

BLOCK: And I'm assuming the economy is the main issue for voters there. What other issues are coming up?

Mr. BARRETO: Well, the economy is certainly a big issue, but one of things that's been talked about a lot in this particular campaign is spending and earmarks.

Rossi has gone after Patty Murray as being one of the leading senators for earmarks and bringing back pork to Washington state. The problem with that is that Patty Murray seems to be defending herself on that issue by pointing out very specific projects that have benefitted jobs or new construction or parks here in Washington state.

And so it's been a very tightrope on that issue with Rossi really trying to play up the earmark issue and saying that spending is out of control and Murray really defending her ground and trying to point to successful projects.

BLOCK: And what about social issues?

Mr. BARRETO: Social issues haven't played quite as strong here in Washington state. When issues such as gay marriage or don't ask, don't tell or immigrant rights or citizenship for undocumented immigrants come up, Washington state generally provides majority support for the more progressive side on those social issues.

It's not runaway. It's not 60, 70 percent, but there tends to be support for that. And as a result, you haven't seen Rossi really digging his heels in on issues of don't ask, don't tell and immigrant issues.

Republicans here aren't always playing on the social issues that you see in other places like Kentucky and Utah and other places where some of these Tea Party candidates have had a stronger hold.

BLOCK: I've been talking with political science professor Matt Barreto. He directs the Washington Poll at the University of Washington in Seattle. Matt, thanks very much.

Mr. BARRETO: Sure thing, Melissa, my pleasure.

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