Late last month, as the political class was chattering about rumors that Barack Obama would blow past Hillary Clinton in his second-quarter fundraising, former president Bill Clinton flew out to Seattle to shake some last-minute cash out of the region's well-to-do Democratic base.
As it turned out, when the Democratic presidential campaigns reported their numbers after June 30, the gap between Obama and Clinton was far too big for one Seattle fundraiser to have narrowed—Obama took in $10 million more than Clinton last quarter, a huge haul, and from a record-breaking number of donors.
But it also turned out that the Seattle fundraiser didn't even help as much the Clinton campaign had hoped, missing its goal in a big way and providing yet another sign that Clinton is having trouble gaining as much traction in Washington State as her two main Democratic rivals, Obama and John Edwards.
The Seattle fundraiser with Bill Clinton, held at the downtown Westin Hotel, was initially supposed to be a $500-a-plate affair. According to Susan Sheary, who chairs the King County Democrats and volunteered at the event, the price was subsequently dropped to $250 a plate—an indication that even the former president, who won this state by wide margins in both of his campaigns, was having a hard time drawing the desired crowd for Hillary Clinton.
Colby Underwood, the hotshot local Democratic fundraiser who was tapped by the Clinton campaign to pull off the event, said he could not comment on how much was raised. But Blake Zeff, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign, told me via e-mail that Bill Clinton's appearance at the Westin raised $100,000—only half of what organizers hoped.
Zeff did not respond to subsequent e-mail questions about what the missed goal says about Hillary Clinton's standing in Washington State. She led in polls conducted here last summer, but there's no lack of theories about why she's not inspiring Washingtonians to open their checkbooks now. The most recent figure available for Clinton's total fundraising in Washington came at the end of the first fundraising quarter. She had only $89,000, compared to Obama's $211,000 and Edwards's $245,000, according to opensecrets.org. (State-by-state tallies for the second quarter should be available after July 15.)
Sheary, the local Democratic chair, is personally not endorsing a candidate yet, but says she has a clear sense that it's Obama who has captured the attention of Washington's former Deaniacs, a huge component of the active Democratic base. "His message resonates with them," Sheary told me. "I see a lot of support for Edwards for the same reason. Hillary—boy, it's from one extreme to the other. There's people that just love her, there doesn't seem to be anything in the middle, and then there's the opposite extreme of, 'Oh my god, I can't stand that woman.'"
That's a problem for Clinton around the country, but Washington Congressman Jay Inslee, the only local elected official to have publicly endorsed her so far, says that Clinton has an added hurdle here because of the type of Democrats active in Washington. "I love Democrats of all stripes," Inslee told me. "But the Democratic constituency of our state is a little different than other Democratic constituencies"—more educated, more white-collar, more affluent. "Hillary does very well with working moms, blue-collar workers, union or nonunion men."
In other words, she does well among liberals who feel economically pinched and remember the better economic times under Bill Clinton. "There's a stronger constituency of that group of people in, say, Ohio than there is in Washington State," Inslee said.
Another problem for Clinton: Unlike Obama and Edwards, she hasn't been here once since she entered the race, and her campaign has no operation on the ground in this state. In the end, that may turn out to be a smart strategy for winning the Democratic nomination. Washington's Democratic caucuses come relatively late in the process and are likely to be hugely influenced by results in other, earlier primary states where Clinton has made big investments of time and money.
Sheary says that even if Clinton were to win the Washington caucuses due solely to momentum from wins in earlier states, she's still going to have an enthusiasm problem among Democrats here during the general election. Washington's hardcore Democrats tend to be a stubborn lot, and when they pick their candidate—in this state, far more likely to be a Dean or a Kucinich than in others—they don't tend to have their minds changed when the national nominating process produces someone with more mainstream appeal.
"If Obama happens not to get the nomination," Sheary said, "I suspect those people will stay with him." Would they go so far as to not vote if the Democratic nominee is Clinton? "Oh, they'll vote," she said. "But they won't take down their signs and they won't give their support. They're still talking about Paul Tsongas."