Cantwell's coup—hiring (co-opting?) one of her antiwar primary opponents, Mark Wilson, onto her campaign staff—is a big deal. In fact, I would argue that it may turn out to be the defining moment in her reelection bid. However, it's not a big deal for the reason you think—that is, it's not about the war.
The antiwar vote was not Cantwell's real Achilles' heel. As I've repeatedly posted on The Stranger's blog: The War Is Over. The antiwar crowd makes good copy, but really, when it comes down to a vote between the GOP candidate and Cantwell, progressives are going to flock to the polls in 2006 in a redemptive fit to undo 2004 and to win back Congress. Indeed, the Democratic Party in the People's Republic of King County—the state's antiwar stronghold—gave Cantwell their early endorsement late last month by a convincing 35-9 vote. The diehard antiwar vote is a media fixation—I was fixated on it for a while as well—but truth be told, it's an insubstantial factor in Cantwell versus Mike McGavick.
No, Cantwell's real Achilles' heel is the rap that she doesn't play well with others. She's infamously cold and aloof. McGavick has certainly identified this as Cantwell's premier weakness—thus his endless emphasis on civility and changing the partisan, bickering tone in Washington, D.C. And more to the point, his "Open Mike" tour, which casts him as a friendly fella going around the state meeting with folks and doing live podcasts. This is McGavick's attempt to draw a distinction with bitchy Maria, who—her staff will readily admit—made personal strides by recently deigning to march with the peeps in the Fourth of July parade in Burien.
But wait—bitchy, bickering, aloof Maria Cantwell just managed to hire her loudest intramural opponent onto her staff? How'd that happen? This is the guy who fumed that Cantwell voted for "an illegal war." However, in a July 8 e-mail to his supporters, word from Wilson upon hooking up with Cantwell was all afterglow: "I have had a deep and personal one-on-one conversation with Senator Cantwell. I came away convinced we are on the same path when it comes to solving the crisis in Iraq and the potential crisis with Iran."
And so I'd argue that getting antiwar Wilson on board is not so much a substantive political victory about containing the so-called antiwar uprising, but rather a symbolic victory about Cantwell's character—her ability to play well with antagonists—which is much more important thematically and strategically for her campaign.
By wooing her main detractor, Cantwell has demonstrated that she can roll up her sleeves on divisive issues and make allies. This is a serious blow to the McGavick campaign, which had hoped the war would plague her. In fact, (and now ironically), it was the GOP that hyped the war issue. Listen to a recent hyperbolic GOP press release: "As anticipated, Democrats were fiercely divided over the Iraq war and their incumbent U.S. Senate candidate, Maria Cantwell. Reactions to Cantwell at the convention were mixed. Many delegates sported 'No War' buttons. The rift in the Democratic Party is not going to heal overnight."
Indeed, McGavick was hoping that, for Cantwell, the race would be defined by the war. Well, it may very well be, but not in the way they imagined. Now, for Cantwell, the war has cast her as a peacemaker, a healer.
Perhaps the biggest score for Cantwell, though, is that Wilson is going to hit the trail and talk to the progressive community, the base, on her behalf. It's something Cantwell just doesn't like doing.