ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The Tea Party movement is playing a big role in this year's campaign season. Tea Party-endorsed outsiders such as Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada have won nominations for U.S. Senate, and they've done it by upsetting establishment Republicans.
The libertarian-leaning movement is hoping for a similar victory in Washington state, but as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the election system may be stacked against the Tea Party candidate.
MARTIN KASTE: The Tea Party message has certainly become a factor in Washington's Senate race.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #1: Nice and bright and sunny, isn't it?
Unidentified Woman #1: It is.
Unidentified Woman #2: We love this.
KASTE: Witness this unusual scene a couple weeks ago: Senator Patty Murray, the Democrat and three-term incumbent, was touring Seattle's Southside, talking up the $3 million in federal funding she'd netted to help rebuild a nearby bridge. But then, she took questions from local reporters.
Unidentified Man #2: Respond to that criticism that earmarks are really are wrong.
KASTE: And instead of getting to brag about her clout on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Murray found herself on the defensive for being too good at bringing home the federal money.
Senator PATTY MURRAY (Democrat, Washington): What my job is, is to get up every day and work with local communities that have needs for their community, for economic development, for families, for safety, and then go to bat for them in Washington, D.C.
KASTE: And the questions kept coming. Isn't federal spending out of control, Senator? Isn't the debt getting too big? After it was over, Dagmar Cronn was left shaking her head.
Ms. DAGMAR CRONN (President, South Park Neighborhood Association; Co-chair, New South Park Bridge Coalition): Isn't that an interesting set of questions?
KASTE: Cronn is a neighborhood organizer who came out to thank Murray for the bridge money, and she doesn't get why the senator was put on the defensive.
Ms. CRONN: I have always assumed that we want to elect people who can go to Washington, D.C. and be successful for their constituency.
KASTE: But maybe not this year. Polls show that voters are worried about ballooning federal spending. It's an especially potent issue here in the West. So it would seem that this is a good year for a candidate like Clint Didier.
Mr. CLINT DIDIER (Tea Party Senatorial Candidate, Washington): It's going to take leadership to go back to D.C. and then start cutting back on the size of government.
KASTE: Didier is the Tea Party candidate for Senate, endorsed by Sarah Palin herself. This alfalfa farmer considers himself a Republican, just not an establishment Republican.
Mr. DIDIER: We had establishment Republicans back there from 2000 to 2008. What did we do in that time? We lost ground. We fumbled the ball. We got...
KASTE: Oh yeah. Didier also used to play in the NFL.
Mr. DIDIER: We're late in the fourth quarter, and time's running out. If you want to put another establishment Republican back there, don't think that we're not going to go into this end zone of socialism.
KASTE: Now, Clint Didier probably couldn't win the general election. Washington state usually prefers centrists, and Didier is not that. But even in the primary election on August 17th, Didier probably can't win, says political science professor Travis Ridout.
Professor TRAVIS RIDOUT (Professor of Political Science, Washington State University): I just don't see it. And I think one reason for that is the top-two primary system.
KASTE: The top-two primary, it's Washington state's relatively new system in which all candidates run in one big pack, regardless of party, and the top two finishers advance to the general election.
The system is meant to bring in more independent voters and favor more moderate politics. It's become the latest political-reform fad. California voters just adopted a similar primary system to try to reduce their state's political polarization.
And in the Washington Senate race, it has allowed the Republican front-runner focus earlier on the Democratic incumbent.
Who is your opponent in this primary?
Mr. DINO ROSSI (Republican Senatorial Candidate, Washington): Patty Murray.
KASTE: This is Dino Rossi, a real estate salesman and two-time gubernatorial candidate - Clint Didier's idea of an establishment Republican. In Rossi's stump speech, delivered here at a factory near Seattle, he sounds Tea Partyish.
Mr. ROSSI: This election is going to come down to that fundamental question, where I really believe in more of a limited role of government to set up a framework where it's fair for everybody to pursue whatever dreams they have.
My opponent really believes more in a cradle-to-grave that government is going to guarantee you everything in life.
KASTE: But while Rossi praises the Tea Party movement, he tends to do it from arm's length.
Mr. ROSSI: It's good to have as many people involved in the process as possible, not just a select few.
KASTE: And their - the policy changes they're pushing for, do you agree with them?
Mr. ROSSI: Well, I mean I'm sure there are some I do and some I don't.
KASTE: For instance, while Tea Partiers have been calling for the repeal of the new health care law, Rossi says he wants to replace it with a different kind of reform. And while Clint Didier says he doesn't believe in global warming, Rossi merely expresses a vague skepticism. Still, many Tea Party sympathizers realize that they can't demand ideological purity from Rossi.
After the candidate leaves, the factory's boss, Tom Hedges, says he actually leans towards the Tea Party.
Mr. TOM HEDGES: You know, we've supported a variety of different organizations that are trying to get America back to its fundamentals, so to speak.
KASTE: But Hedges says he's backing Rossi because he has to be realistic. This top-two primary is a dry run for the general election, and he's going to vote for the Republican that he thinks can win.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
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