Something odd is happening in Washington State.
It's not that Barack Obama is running strong here, up by 10 points in a recent state poll. That makes sense. You have to go back to 1984 to find the last time this state picked a Republican (Ronald Reagan) for president. Plus, Obama's big win here in the February Democratic caucuses, and the record- shattering turnout he helped inspire, provided a clear early signal that Washington would be his to lose.
What's odd is that when you look past Obama, you find Democrats down the ticket who are running behind, even with, or just barely ahead of their Republican opponents.
Governor Christine Gregoire, who wisely jumped on the Obama bandwagon all the way back in February, doesn't seem to be getting much of a political dividend from that endorsement. In fact, it may be her opponent, Republican Dino Rossi, who is successfully riding Obama's "change" coattails. A television ad that Rossi launched in August was titled "Change." In it, the smiling candidate closed with the statement, "I'll work to start fixing some problems—for a change." His political dividend? An October 3 Rasmussen poll found Gregoire and Rossi exactly tied, at 48–48, in this year's rematch of their epic 2004 fight.
In Washington's other big rematch, the Eastside contest between incumbent Republican congressman Dave Reichert and his two-time Democratic challenger Darcy Burner, public opinion appears to be solidly favoring Reichert. An October 10 poll by Research 2000, conducted on behalf of the liberal blog Daily Kos, showed Reichert beating Burner by eight points—a far bigger margin than the three points he beat her by in 2006.
Further down the ballot, the state's Republican attorney general, Rob McKenna, seems poised to beat back a challenge by Democratic Pierce County executive John Ladenburg. Our Republican secretary of state, Sam Reed, seems almost certain to defeat his Democratic opponent, Jason Osgood, who's neither well funded nor widely known. And the race for commissioner of public lands is still tight between Eastern Washington Democrat Peter Goldmark and Republican incumbent Doug Sutherland, who was wounded earlier this year by a sexual-harassment imbroglio.
All of which raises the distinct possibility that on election night, Washington will be "blue" in only a very superficial sense. If the current political conditions hold, this state could give its 11 Electoral College votes to Obama while at the same time giving the governor's mansion to Rossi and retaining three top Republicans in statewide offices.
Democrats are loath to believe this will happen. "Bullshit," said former state Democratic Party chair Paul Berendt when presented with the scenario. But, in almost the same breath, Berendt admits, "This state is more conservative than people think."
There isn't yet a unified theory for why Washington Democrats are in this relatively unfavorable position during an election year that should heavily favor them. But you can bet one will emerge if Gregoire, Burner, Ladenburg, Osgood, and Goldmark all lose. In Cliffs-Notes form, the theory will probably go something like this: The pendulum in Washington State is swinging back to the right after a period of three years in which Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature and the governor's mansion.
For now, however, there are individual theories for why each race is the way it is, and different answers as to why the supposed Obama coattail effect—the promise that the extraordinary excitement he generates would boost liberal turnout and help down-ticket Democrats—isn't showing up so far in state polls.
For Governor Gregoire, the potential explanations are manifold. First, it could be that the polls showing a close Gregoire-Rossi race simply aren't picking up many of the new Obama voters—people who are more likely than most to be cell-phone users not reached by traditional polling. We won't know until Election Day whether that's a plausible explanation or just wishful thinking.
Second, Gregoire is running in a rematch that inevitably triggers memories of the incredibly close, repeatedly recounted, and endlessly litigated 2004 race that put her in the governor's seat. As a result, says local political consultant Christian Sinderman, both Gregoire and Rossi "began with 100 percent voter recognition and well-formed voter opinions against them."
That's a challenging hand to be dealt. "We've got to change people's minds," Aaron Toso, a spokesman for Gregoire's campaign, says. "A lot of people are still raw about 2004."
Third, Gregoire isn't connecting as well as she should be. Why? Part of it is the way she comes across—smart but severe, wise but not warm—and the adjectives associated with her style of governing. "She's substantive and wonkish, and those attributes don't always translate well into political sound bites," Sinderman says. Nor do they translate into a winning style of public persuasion.
Fourth, there's the economy. Just as Republicans at the federal level are being blamed for the state of the U.S. economy, endangering their electoral chances, so, too, is Gregoire being blamed for Washington State's economy. It doesn't make sense if you think about it seriously and for longer than a minute—as Gregoire repeatedly points out, the vast majority of the adverse effects on Washington's economy have resulted from President George Bush's policies, not hers (she didn't launch the costly war in Iraq or stand by while Wall Street was deregulated into disaster). But many of the undecided, still-persuadable-in-October voters don't tend to think long and seriously about such things. "They're really fighting over, like, 5 percent of the electorate," Berendt says of Gregoire and Rossi. "Which, by the way, are very ill-informed voters."
Taking advantage of this, Rossi has hammered away at the state's projected $3.2 billion budget shortfall and high unemployment rate. Gregoire, for her part, has only belatedly started talking about the "$4.5 billion Rossi deficit" that would develop if Rossi followed through on all his plans and campaign-trail promises.
Hence the emergence, suggested by polls and some anecdotal evidence, of the Obama-Rossi voter. Substantively, Obama and Rossi have very little in common, differing on everything from abortion to the minimum wage to global warming. Yet some swing voters' main criterion is apparently that a candidate be a guy with a great smile who talks about change, and both Obama and Rossi fit that description.
When Michelle Obama visited Seattle in July, she tried, unsuccessfully, to put a stop to this merging of the Obama and Rossi change messages. "Michelle Obama was the one who said, 'It's not change for change's sake,'" Toso recalls.
It didn't work. "I think one of the problems we're facing right now is a lot of people just don't know about the extreme views that Rossi has," Toso says. For example, Rossi opposed expanding the children's health- insurance program, supports rolling back same-sex partner benefits, and opposes medically accurate sex education in schools.
There's plenty to preoccupy voters who don't know this, though, which brings us to the fifth explanation for Gregoire's tight race: Right now, many voters may simply be too distracted by the presidential contest to hear her. Pollster Alex Evans, of EMC Research, believes that when voters do finally turn their full attention to the governor's race—likely in the last few days of the campaign—"they're going to come home to Gregoire."
For Burner, being heard over the clamor of the presidential race is also proving a challenge. She's running in Washington's 8th District, a fast-purpling "swing district" on the Eastside that hasn't yet swung once, despite repeated predictions that this, finally, will be the year its congressional seat falls into Democratic hands. Like Gregoire, Burner has tried, without much of a response in the polls, to hitch herself to the Obama phenomenon. In August, Burner was passing out a glossy campaign flyer featuring her smiling photo and the declaration: "Yes. We. Can."
She's also tried to position herself as more thoughtful than her opponent, Reichert, on the issue of the Iraq war, earlier this year releasing a "responsible plan" for ending the conflict. The plan was well-received nationally and endorsed by scores of other Democratic challengers around the country. But suddenly, issue number one is the economy—and where is Burner? In the same place as Reichert, at least when it comes to the $700 billion bailout Congress recently approved. "She would have voted no on this proposal," wrote Burner spokesman Sandeep Kaushik—on the day Reichert voted no on the bailout in D.C. "It did not do enough to deal with the underlying problems that created this mess. And it did not do enough to protect taxpayers."
All well and good, but not a sharp differentiation. If the focus stays on the economy, and the candidates stay in basic agreement on issues such as the bailout, then Burner's bet, essentially, is that a general tide of voter frustration with politicians in D.C. will float Reichert out of office. It was her bet in 2006, and it didn't work. So far the polls suggest it's not working this time, either.
As for Goldmark, his problem in the race for the lands commissioner post is money. Sinderman, who is helping to direct Goldmark's campaign, pointed out that it recently took his candidate two months to raise $100,000. In contrast, timber giant Weyerhauser "just wrote that in a check" to a political action committee designed to help his opponent, Sutherland, Sinderman said. A recently unearthed 2005 sexual-harassment charge against Sutherland by a female employee will certainly help Goldmark. But, says Sinderman, "Peter will be outspent." Same for Osgood, the Democrat mounting a long-shot challenge to Republican secretary of state Sam Reed. And in the attorney general's race, Republican incumbent McKenna was recently polling 13 points ahead of challenger Ladenburg.
Sure, it's likely that on November 5 Democrats will still have majorities in both houses of the state legislature in Olympia. But when it comes to races for statewide office, the playing field is looking surprisingly tough. So what's the silver bullet for Washington State Democrats in a year when they shouldn't really need one? Clearly, it's not just that success for Obama will lift all Democratic boats—at least not yet.
In fact, perhaps the best thing Obama could do for down-ticket Washington State Democrats right now is nothing: hold steady, hold on to his big lead over John McCain, and let his victory in the presidential race become such a foregone conclusion that people here can focus on something else between now and November 4.
Then, maybe, voters here will have time to delve into the issues at play in contests like the governor's race. That's one theory, anyway. "If they're voting on those issues, they're going to vote for Governor Gregoire," said Toso.
Hope—it's not just for Barack Obama.