Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell’s name recognition and $4.5 million fundraising lead make the 2012 Washington Senate race hers to lose, analysts say.
Or, possibly, President Barack Obama’s.
The Aug. 7 primary election pits Cantwell, who is running for a third term, against mostly Republican candidates. The top two vote-getters will advance to November’s general election. Experts say the junior senator’s seat looks safe, but her success may be tied to the president’s approval rating.
“If Maria Cantwell ends up being vulnerable, then the Democrats have much bigger problems nationwide,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “The only way that this becomes a competitive race is if President Obama’s numbers crater.”
Obama is currently outpolling GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney by double digits in Washington state, according to a June survey by Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based Democratic firm. Fifty-four percent of voters surveyed said they would vote for Obama, while 41 percent said they would vote for Romney. The poll also showed Cantwell beating her closest rival, Republican state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, 51 percent to 35 percent.
Cantwell campaign strategist Rose Kapolczynski said though her candidate has a strong lead, liberals will be less likely to vote in the November election if they see Obama as weak. That would mean fewer votes for Cantwell, too.
Kapolczynski is also concerned that national Republican strategists will take an interest in the Washington Senate race. As of March 31, Cantwell’s campaign had $4.6 million to spend, the Federal Election Commission reported. Baumgartner had only $144,000. But a funding boost from conservative Super PACs could make him a bigger threat.
“Because we can’t control those factors, we have to be prepared for the worst,” Kapolczynski said. “$5 million to (Republican strategist) Karl Rove is like the lint in his pocket.”
Right now, a major contribution from the likes of Rove seems unlikely, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. National Republicans are not paying attention to Washington’s Senate race. Even within the state, GOP leaders are preoccupied by the governor’s race, which is expected to be a close contest between Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee.
The Washington State Republican Party is waiting to see which of two candidates—Baumgartner or Art Coday—survives the Senate primary, state GOP chairman Kirby Wilbur said. Both have relatively little political experience. Baumgartner is finishing his first term representing Spokane in the state Senate, and Coday, a Lynnwood physician, has never held elected office.
Duffy said Baumgartner appears to be the frontrunner among the Republicans. Public Policy Polling’s June survey did not include Coday, who had only $22,500 on hand for spending as of March 31.
A more widely known politician such as U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, who considered running against Cantwell this year, “might have gotten a better start,” Wilbur said. But Reichert would have had the same message as the other candidates, Wilbur added: Cantwell has supported Obama’s failed economic policies.
“She’s got a record that she has to answer for,” Wilbur said. “This is an election really about Maria Cantwell.”
Baumgartner accused Cantwell of being unable to balance the country’s budget. Since her election in 2000, the national debt has doubled, he said. Baumgartner touted his recent success in cosponsoring a bill to restructure the state pension system and said his background in economics – he studied economic development at Harvard and has served with the U.S. State Department as an economic officer in Iraq – make him better qualified to deal with fiscal matters.
The economy is the top concern for voters this year, Kapolczynski agreed. But the campaign strategist said Cantwell’s record of developing job-training programs in the aerospace industry and her support of tax credits for small businesses will benefit her.
So will her reputation for Wall Street oversight, said Washington State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz. Among other accomplishments, she has increased regulation of the derivatives market and encouraged the Federal Trade Commission to launch a probe of gas-price spikes.
Another major talking point for Baumgartner is his knowledge of foreign policy. In addition to his work in Iraq, he has volunteered with Jesuits in Mozambique, advised the Crown Prince of Dubai on developing a “knowledge-based” economy and consulted with the U.S. military on counternarcotics tactics in Afghanistan. Cantwell does not have comparable experience, he said.
Baumgartner believes the United States has too many troops in Afghanistan, a position uncommon among Republicans. He also opposes military intervention to shut down Iran’s nuclear program.
Cantwell too has bucked party trends on foreign policy. During the 2006 election, she stirred up controversy among some liberals by not apologizing for her 2002 vote to use force against Iraq.
Baumgartner acknowledged that Cantwell has “a humongous fundraising advantage.” Despite her financial lead, he said if voters pay attention to the issues, he will win.
“Cantwell is someone who bought her way into office 12 years ago,” he said, referring to the $10 million the former RealNetworks executive invested out of pocket in her 2000 race. “At the end of the day campaigns aren’t about dollars, they’re about who has better solutions.”
Like Baumgartner, Coday casts his newcomer status as a strength. If elected, he will draw on the management skills he has learned as a father and the owner of a small business, he said.
“People are very disappointed with the performance of elected officials in general,” Coday said. “I think people are really searching for credible leadership.”
Coday and Baumgartner also share an alma mater: Coday graduated from Harvard Medical School. He has focused his campaign on the need for health care reform, which he says he understands intimately because of his medical career. A majority of his patients rely on Medicare or Medicaid. To afford to treat them, he has closed his office and makes only house calls.
Obama’s health care policy, which the Supreme Court recently upheld, is misguided, Coday said. The doctor believes Medicaid should be reserved for the very poor and that Americans should not be required to buy health insurance.
As of March 31, no other candidate in the Senate rate had reported raising campaign funds.
Glen Stockwell of Ritzville, who is running as a Republican, wants to finish the Columbia Basin Project, a New Deal initiative to irrigate Eastern Washington. Another Republican, Mike the Mover, who changed his name to advertise his moving business and has been a perennial candidate for various state offices, described his campaign as “all for fun.”
The remaining candidates – Democrat Tim Wilson of Seattle, Republican Chuck Jackson of Snohomish, and Reform Party member Will Baker of Tacoma – could not be reached for firstname.lastname@example.org