In 2007, as conditions in Iraq were going downhill, U.S. Senate candidate Michael Baumgartner made what seemed to him like a logical decision: He moved there.
“Some Americans were stepping up to serve, and I felt compelled,” he said. “I wasn’t married, I didn’t have children.”
It wasn’t Baumgartner’s first time abroad. The 36-year-old Republican, who represents Spokane in the state Senate, has lived or worked in 70 countries. But it was his first time in a war zone.
The year he spent as the State Department’s lead strategic policy coordinator in Baghdad, followed by seven months advising a counternarcotics team in Afghanistan, forged his belief that foreign policy should be higher on voters’ priority list.
He’s willing to get aggressive to put it there. In August, he told a reporter to “go (expletive) himself” for writing about Missouri Congressman Todd Akin’s recent abortion gaffe rather than war in the Middle East.
Baumgartner grew up in Spokane and Pullman, where he eventually studied economics at Washington State University. After earning a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard in 2002, he spent the next five years advising the crown prince of Dubai on economic development, consulting with Saudi business groups and helping an American mining company respond to challenges from the Venezuelan government.
In Afghanistan, Baumgartner spent his days urging farmers to plant wheat instead of opium. He also spent them wooing his future wife, Eleanor, a British journalist and consultant who was working with him. In 2009, the two moved back to Washington together.
Baumgartner didn’t sit still for long. Believing that he could run the state more efficiently than its current leaders, he decided to run for state Senate against Chris Marr, a Democrat who had represented Spokane since 2006.
The race, which cost more than $1 million, was the most expensive state legislative contest in Washington’s history. Baumgartner won.
Fellow senators said Baumgartner’s years in the Middle East show in his efforts to keep peace on the Senate floor. Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, recalled several speeches in which Baumgartner pointed out the insignificance of his colleagues’ differences.
“He had been in an environment where instead of arguing, they were killing each other,” Kastama said.
Senate Republicans benefit from Baumgartner’s ability to communicate across the aisle, said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale. Baumgartner played a key role in persuading three Democratic senators, including Kastama, to vote with the GOP to pass a budget bill in March, Ericksen said.
Baumgartner’s experience in war zones has also molded his understanding of foreign policy. Unlike many Republicans, he believes the United States is wasting its resources on democracy-building in Afghanistan. A more targeted military approach would have worked better and saved trillions of dollars, he said.
“Government doesn’t come in a box,” he said. “It comes through legitimate local growth.”
That focus on the war is a major theme in Baumgartner’s campaign against Maria Cantwell, the state’s Democratic junior senator who repeatedly voted to expand U.S. forces in Afghanistan, including a May 2010 vote to increase troop levels to more than 100,000 at the cost of $37 billion. Baumgartner has decried her votes.
The message hasn’t resounded with voters or donors. In the Aug. 7 primary, Baumgartner garnered 30.1 percent of the vote to Cantwell’s 55.7 percent. Other Cantwell challengers took the remaining 14.2 percent. Federal Election Commission reports from July show that Baumgartner had raised only $689,690 to Cantwell’s $8 million.
Foreign policy isn’t typically the building block of a statewide campaign. Baumgartner acknowledged that most voters care more about domestic issues, especially the economy. That hasn’t deterred him.
“In my view, people don’t care enough about the war,” he said. “My interest in foreign policy is above the average voter’s interest. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it.”
In mid-August, Baumgartner’s efforts to steer the conversation toward Afghanistan caused him some public relations grief.
Josh Feit, a writer for the political blog PubliCola, called Baumgartner to ask how his views on rape and abortion compared to those of Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin who made a comment about women’s bodies being able to thwart pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.” According to PubliCola, Baumgartner chastised Feit for focusing on the Akin scandal at the expense of the war.
Hours later, Baumgartner sent Feit an email with a photo of Baumgartner and another man. The email said the man had just been killed in Afghanistan. It instructed Feit to “Take a good look and then go (expletive) yourself.”
“I don’t apologize,” Baumgartner said in an interview. “He had it coming.” But, he added, “If I knew he was going to make it public, I wouldn’t have sent it.”
Baumgartner’s lack of experience and his Eastern Washington roots will probably doom him in this election, said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University.
“That’s not the regular A-team for Republicans in terms of recruiting,” Donovan said.
But by running, Baumgartner will generate name recognition for himself, Donovan said.