Mike McGavick, former Safeco CEO turned GOP U.S. Senate candidate, was in Central Washington last weekend for the latest stop on his "Open Mike" tour. The tour is a bit of folksy campaign shtick: McGavick rolls into town on a giant red tour bus, sets up a chuck wagon, and hosts a barbecue. After some meet-and-greet time, the 48-year-old candidate, a balding, roundish guy who looks like a high-school football coach, fields questions standing behind a microphone that's dressed up to look like something from an old CBS radio program.
The July 22 Moses Lake installment—with hot dogs, baked beans, Doritos, and Gatorade—was held in a sprawling park, which slopes down toward the lake. Moses Lake is a beat down, agricultural, Wal-Mart kind of town. Its main drag is dominated by churches, bars, and Mexican restaurants. It's in Grant County, two and a half hours east of Seattle, and went 69.6 percent for Bush in 2004 and backed the failed gas-tax repeal by 61 percent.
Despite those conservative credentials, Moses Lake voters are feeling restless as America slogs through its fourth year of war in Iraq. "Bush is the best liar of all the politicians," a 28-year-old farm worker who voted for Bush twice tells me that evening, sitting at Sporty's bar on the main drag across the street from the Pizza Hut. Even the Republican faithful at "Open Mike" ask hard questions. An old woman at one of the plastic picnic tables in the front row asks a question that was—whether she thought so or not—an attack on the GOP. Why are Iraq war vets getting stiffed on health care?
You don't have to read the Nation to know that despite a push by Democrats, the GOP voted down crucial funding for the Veterans Administration when it faced a $1 billion shortfall in 2005. McGavick's opponent, Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, voted for the VA funding, which lost 54–46. All 54 nays came from McGavick's fellow Republicans.
"We want to make sure we do a better job for our veterans," McGavick responds. "It's a lousy deal to say 'go take the risk,' and [then] come back and find we can't afford [health care]. That is not keeping our promise. We have to get more serious about veterans' care."
Who's the "we" that has to get more serious about veterans' health care? President Bush and the Republicans who control Congress, that's who. But McGavick doesn't name them—he can't name them. What he can do—what he is doing, while Cantwell is AWOL—is seize on public disgust with Bush and the congressional Republicans by attacking government in general. McGavick is running with the public's foul mood rather than being forced to run against it—or even against Cantwell.
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The GOP controls D.C. They have an 11-vote advantage in the Senate; a 30-vote advantage in the House. They control the White House and the Supreme Court. This is a bad thing for the Grand Old Party these days. Another year of war, scandal, and incompetence has made the public angry with its leaders—GOP leaders who have driven the country into a ditch. Democrats believe voters will finally take the car keys away from Republicans in November and hand them to the Democrats.
They could be right. Approval ratings for Congress are at 25 percent. Bush's ratings dipped to 31 percent in May. The deficit is $296 billion. Gas prices are over $3 a gallon. Longtime GOP House Speaker Tom DeLay was indicted in a Republican lobbying scandal. And all of this discouraging news takes place in the context of Iraq and Katrina.
In Washington State, the deck is already stacked against Republicans. Even before the GOP's free fall, John Kerry got 53 percent here. The federal house delegation is 6–3 Democratic. Both senators and the governor are Democrats. Olympia? Democratic.
So, it sucks to be the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate this year, right? Wrong. The latest Elway Poll has Cantwell uncomfortably below 50 percent, 47–33. She had a 55–25 advantage in February. In June, the well-respected Cook Political Report delivered some bracing analysis for Cantwell: "Cantwell may be the party's most vulnerable incumbent."
In Moses Lake, I watched McGavick—who mixes Bush's homespun charisma with Kerry's brains—reframe an election season that should be a referendum on Republicans into a discussion where the problems themselves—the war, mismanagement—weren't the actual problems. Conveniently enough, in McGavick's message, the real problem is all the finger pointing, the partisan blame game in Washington, D.C. "To be a Westerner you have to be an optimist," McGavick declared to the 60-plus mostly older, mostly local men with straw cowboy hats and wide bellies stretching out plaid shirts and hanging over belts. "But then we take our optimistic view and look back east [at D.C.]. Do we like what we see? It seems like every issue is just another chance for one party or the other to call each other names. That's no way to solve problems."
Voilà. He's on familiar Republican turf: fighting government—even though the government is tightly in GOP hands. And even though it's the majority GOP that has set the postal tone: An antigay Constitutional amendment? Terri Schiavo grandstanding with James Dobson? Threatening a "nuclear option" to prevent a standard filibuster? But never mind. "What's frustrating people right now," McGavick told the crowd, "is they don't see much common sense in their government anymore."
McGavick, has injected this year's anti-GOP sentiment into an indiscriminate campaign against D.C. in general. If you want to change things in D.C., McGavick is out there telling voters, don't defeat the GOP. Defeat the partisanship in D.C., and by implication, Cantwell.
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The way McGavick spins two defining issues of the Bush era—Iraq and Katrina—are great examples of how he's transformed discontent with Republicans into fuel for his own campaign.
McGavick, whose lilting, high-pitched voice sounds like Mike Tyson imitating a Texan, kicks off his stump speech by singling out the government response to Katrina as the "moment that crystallized" his decision to run. "On [TV] you would see someone standing on their rooftop waving to be rescued," he begins. "Yet what did you see in the corner of the screen? Some politician, Republican or Democrat, blaming somebody else, trying to gain partisan advantage of this crisis. If we want change we have to have some new people back there."
In a similar feat of political alchemy, McGavick addresses public disappointment over Bush's handling of the war with another all-purpose, antigovernment attack. McGavick speaks to public frustration by saying mistakes were made. But he inoculates his party by saying it's not kosher for Congress to debate Iraq now. "We have learned things—since being there—that turned out not to be true," McGavick admits after a lone Democratic community-college student sitting in back brings up the war. "But it's inappropriate to have those debates until our troops are out of harm's way. I would not take up the Congress's time right now debating those things. I can learn about them later."
Any debate over the war, in McGavick's opinion, is just more finger pointing and finger pointing is the problem, not the war itself.
Rich Childress, owner of Moses Lake's C&V auto dealership, loves McGavick's message. "Keep your mouth shut if you want to debate the war," he says. "Don't go on TV with the word[s] 'U.S. Senator' on your chest and badmouth the war." When I remind Childress that Cantwell voted for the war and stands by her vote, he smiles. "Yeah, that's true."
The specifics about Cantwell don't match McGavick's campaign. Cantwell isn't a war critic. And she's not hotly partisan. She famously teamed up with the GOP to pass bipartisan campaign finance reform; she reached across the aisle to pass the sales tax deduction; she didn't join the Democrats' gimmicky Alito filibuster; she voted for the PATRIOT Act. She's under fire from liberals for being conservative.
After the Q&A, I asked McGavick where Cantwell fit into his critique of D.C.'s pessimistic culture. "I barely talked about Cantwell [because partisan bickering] is a national issue," he said. "It's not about Senator Cantwell."
McGavick is running against D.C., not against Cantwell. If McGavick can continue to do an end run around Cantwell with his broad critique of D.C.—he could win. And Cantwell is letting this happen. She needs to make McGavick run against her—and things like her VA funding vote— if she wants to short-circuit McGavick's charming attempt to co-opt public anger to his advantage.