Dow Constantine can count.
He knows that if you add the 27 percent of votes he got in the August 18 primary to the 35 percent of votes that went to his main Democratic rivals—Ross Hunter, Larry Phillips, and Fred Jarrett, who have all endorsed Constantine in the general election—you get to 62 percent. That math suggests that the King County executive's seat will be his. But not so fast, Dow. Susan Hutchison may be a Republican running in an overwhelmingly Democratic county, but she's a closet Republican who scored 33 percent of the primary vote in an overwhelmingly Democratic county. And the hazards in this race are unusual: Hutchison is a well-known former TV-news anchor, the position she wants is technically nonpartisan (so Hutchison's Republican affiliations won't be apparent to some voters), and King County has never had a female executive before. In the first head-to-head poll since the primary election, released by SurveyUSA on September 4, Hutchison was beating Constantine 47 to 44 percent. Yikes.
Here are the five biggest problems Constantine faces—and some advice on how to solve them and win.
The Palin Problem
A former TV personality who's running for executive office, who speaks with warm conviction but little discernable meaning, who's clearly a right-wing nut, and who nevertheless may possess an incomprehensible ability to attract moderate voters—sound familiar?
In many ways, Hutchison is the Northwest's Sarah Palin. Except maybe one: "At least Sarah Palin was the mayor of Wasilla," sighed a former TV-news colleague as Hutchison prepared to give her primary-night victory speech at the Edgewater Hotel. It's true: Palin actually had a much better political résumé.
Still: The charm, the optimism, the ability to utter amazingly stupid lines such as "I don't have to say anything to the voters" while actually winning over a lot of those voters—it's a problem. So is the fact that Hutchison positioned herself in Palin territory by talking about putting King County on "a meat loaf, not a steak, diet," which allows her to play the voice-of-the-real-people (read: suburban and rural people) card if she's hit with any kind of Dow-from-the-big-city-knows-best stuff. Which is to say, she's ready to play the victim. It worked wonderfully for Palin.
In the primary, Constantine's pugnacious side played well among hardcore urban Democrats. But in the general election he needs to appeal to more suburban and rural folks on the other side of Lake Washington. If he appears to attack and demean what Hutchison represents—a successful, conservative, female outsider who says she can steer government better than the boys who've been running the show—that will only play into her hand.
What should Constantine do? Watch the October 2008 debate between Palin and Joe Biden. Watch how Biden sits back and lets Palin hang herself. Watch how he takes her words, repeats them, looks at them quizzically, but then, when he could easily go in for the mocking kill, uses the moment to tout his own positions (preventing her from grabbing any easy martyr moments). Watch, most of all, how he's more focused on how government needs to change than on making easy prey out of his adversary. That's how you deflate a right-wing TV-news talking head who's trying to distract voters from how frighteningly unqualified she is for the job.
The Seattle Problem
Seattle is by far the largest trove of votes in the county. It's overwhelmingly Democratic. But it's also an easy symbolic target. Which is why Hutchison has been implicitly running against Seattle, name-checking in her primary-night speech all the rural areas—like Orting and Duvall and Skykomish—where she's finding that "everyone wants change." It's clearly her strategy to blow through the county's rural lands promising that big, bad, Seattle-style leaders like Constantine won't be ignoring them any longer.
Constantine needs to find a way to subtly Sister Souljah Seattle. Nothing huge and splashy, but something that can be repeated in places like Orting and Duvall and Skykomish. Something that makes him sound like one of them. Politicians play this kind of dog-whistle politics all the time, and if Constantine really wants to trounce Hutchison in the general, then he's going to have to whistle at a lot of dogs. How about something exciting but not exactly inside the county exec's purview? Like, say, coming out against Mayor Greg Nickels's attempt to ban guns in city parks. Something like: "I think—and it appears even Seattle voters agree with me since they just voted him out—that the mayor of Seattle went a little too far in interfering with people's individual liberties. That's not the kind of county executive I want to be." Let the gun nuts mull it over with their rural friends, let the lefties figure out what's really going on, and let Hutchison's base get a little wobblier.
The Pugilist Problem
Constantine likes a fight. He comes off as pugnacious and scrappy and willing to hit Hutchison hard, all qualities that endeared him to those who loathe her duplicity. Given the recent poll that shows one-third of Democrats currently support Hutchison, he needs to continue broadcasting her Republican roots to Democrats who gravitate to Hutchison for her name recognition. But he's trying to get more than just those people now. He's trying to grab the attention of voters who have a soft spot for Hutchison, or could be made to have one.
And, while it's tricky to say this in normal conversation, in political circles it's talked about openly: When a male politician appears to relish beating up on a female opponent, he risks igniting blowback and eliciting sympathy for that opponent. People as far apart on the feminist spectrum as Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton have shown they are willing to exploit this if the man they're running against steps over, or even close to, the line. (Just recall how Clinton's camp stoked a sense that all the men in the 2008 presidential debates were ganging up on her.) Constantine needs to take the edge off just a bit—especially in his upcoming televised debates with Hutchison. He already proved he can land punches and shove Hutchison's Republican leanings into the forefront of the discussion. He can't drop those attacks completely, but it would help him woo those sympathetic to Hutchison if he were a bit less the feisty pugilist and a bit more the pragmatic populist.
And speaking of populism...
The Populist Problem
As a current member of the county council, Constantine spent a lot of the primary touting his record in King County government. The problem: Hutchison's trying to lead a populist insurgency against King County government. "Can we trust our future to the same politician who helped create the mess we're in?" she asks.
She wants to paint Constantine as the incumbent—to make people think he's basically been King County executive for the last three terms—and he needs to be retired because, well, look at this mess! But Constantine can't run away from his record. He's done some great things on the council—such as sponsoring a bill, which passed in June, to protect whistle blowers who reveal waste in the county government—that people need to know about. He should emphasize his long record. All of it. He's been in the state legislature, a body that's not thought of as having a soft spot for the elites in Seattle. And unlike Hutchison, Constantine has actually been a populist, rallying communities to protect their land and using his law degree to fight on their behalf. (Okay, fighting for neighborhood parks and against construction of an oil port on Port Susan Bay, but see how it sounds so much more populist when you say "rallying communities to protect their land"?) Also, he should keep talking about the need to change a county government "that has become too bureaucratic and is no longer able to provide the critical services expected by King County residents." In politics, if you're good, you can be a bunch of things at once: successful county council incumbent, strident critic of the county's failings (which of course you tried to fix while on the council, but now need to be in the executive's seat to really solve), and, above all, Man of the People!
The Even Bigger Problem That Solving All These Problems Solves
It's not just that Constantine needs to demolish Hutchison at the polls in order to keep the King County executive's seat in Democratic hands. He also needs to prevent Hutchison from actually becoming the next Sarah Palin. If Hutchison wins this race, comes close, or even just turns in a respectable showing for a political novice, she will have what she now lacks: a political trial by fire that gives her legitimacy and experience the next time she runs. Imagine if Palin had never won that race to become mayor of Wasilla. Focus on the image of an America that had never let Palin leap into big-league politics, and it's easy to see how important it is that Constantine not just win this fall, but win big, overwhelmingly, as if bouncing Hutchison out of the race was no problem at all.