Ted S. Warren/AP
Republican senatorial candidate Dino Rossi talks to supporters at his campaign office in Everett, Wash., on Tuesday. Rossi is challenging Democratic Sen. Patty Murray for her seat.
The Republicans are almost certain to pick up seats in the Senate this year, if the polls are any guide. But to gain an outright majority, Republicans also need to win at least one state that usually goes Democratic.
That state may be Washington, which hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1994.
The incumbent up for election this year is Patty Murray, a Democrat first elected in 1992, in what became known as the "year of the woman." She ran as the "mom in tennis shoes," an image she still likes to evoke. But after three terms in the Senate, she's no longer the underdog. She ranks high on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and she chairs the Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.
As a result, she's helped bring billions of dollars of federal spending back to Washington state, much of it in the form of earmarks. That kind of clout used to ensure an incumbent's re-election. But this year, Murray's challenger, Republican Dino Rossi, is trying to turn it into a liability.
That's how NPR's Ken Rudin rates the Senate race between Patty Murray and Dino Rossi. See what other political observers think, and get predictions for other races, at the Election Scorecard.
"The old-school measurement of a good senator was how much pork you drug home," Rossi says. "The reality is, we're going to have to have less spending throughout, because right now we're on the verge of moving towards bankruptcy."
Rossi says he'll refrain from earmarks, though he stops short of promising to bring fewer federal dollars back to Washington state. His background is in commercial real estate, and he schedules frequent campaign events with local businessmen, who echo his call for an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone — not just the middle class, as the Democrats prefer.
"People can go and chase the American dream, and then, when they're successful, you don't punish them for their success!" he says.
Rossi's talking points hew closely to the Republican Party's national message this election. And Rossi, who twice ran unsuccessfully for governor, is disciplined about sticking to those national themes. For instance, in campaign ads and in person, Rossi refers to the administration's stimulus package as the "jobless stimulus," a wording that's standard template in Republican campaigns around the country.
"The election of 2010 is the most centralized or nationalized campaign that we've seen at least since 1994," says David Olson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Washington. He says both the Murray and Rossi campaigns have lacked substance; for instance, he says, Murray seems unwilling to defend the stimulus.
"She very well could by pointing out that the difference between unemployment in the absence of the stimulus package, instead of being 10 percent, more likely would have been in the neighborhood of 20 percent," Olson says.
Rather than wade into a complex economic argument about the stimulus, Murray has struck back by painting Rossi as pro-Wall Street, based on his investment in a small local bank.
Ted S. Warren/AP
The Democrats are bringing out the big guns, including Vice President Biden, to campaign for Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who is trying to fend off a challenge from Republican Dino Rossi.
She's also raised questions about the conservative groups that have helped Rossi with attack ads against her. At a recent campaign rally, she said the ads were paid for by "who knows who on Wall Street or Airbus or Karl Rove."
In Washington state, where Boeing is still a major employer, it never hurts to associate your opponent with Airbus, Boeing's rival. The Murray campaign admits it has no actual evidence that Airbus is paying for the ads — just that it might be, given the conservative groups' lack of transparency about their donors.
The Murray-Rossi race is generally considered a tossup, though some recent polls have come to divergent conclusions about who's ahead, and by how much.
But it's clear the Democrats are worried about a Senate seat that seemed safe just a few months ago. They're bringing in the big guns: Bill Clinton, Vice President Biden and first lady Michelle Obama, and on Oct. 21, President Obama arrives for his second visit on Murray's behalf.