SEATTLE - With Democrats threatening a congressional takeover this fall, the GOP's struggle to maintain House and Senate majorities may rely on successful counterattacks. Among the handful of Republican challengers charged with the mission of unseating Democratic incumbents, Mike McGavick of Washington state rose to prominence over the summer with his common-sense approach to fiscal responsibility and blue-state views on abortion. Some polls showed the former Safeco Insurance CEO within four points of Sen. Maria Cantwell.
McGavick, many suppose, represents the best in the political world-civil, genuine, forthcoming. An unsolicited confession on his website of a 13-year-old DUI citation impressed even left-leaning local pundits. Robert Jamieson, one of Seattle's most liberal columnists, called such transparency "refreshing" and "admirable."
But that bold attempt at personal candor backfired earlier this month when reporters obtained a copy of the police report and charged McGavick with minimizing the event. The candidate had stated he cut a yellow light too closely and was cited for DUI. The police report calls the light "steady red" and recounts that he was not only cited but also arrested. In an e-mail to supporters and the press, McGavick apologized for any perceived discrepancies and wrote that it was clearly not his intent to mislead anyone.
That hardly deterred local media from exploiting McGavick's first public slip since joining the race last fall. Jamieson retracted his kind words and compared the difference between a red light and yellow light to that between terrorists and Muslim innocents.
McGavick refrained from snapping back at such biting criticism, maintaining his pledge to replace political nastiness with civility-the original motivation behind his embarrassing disclosure. Campaign spokesman Elliott Bundy called the attacks unfortunate: "I won't condemn anybody's coverage of it, but I do think the broader point has been lost in the search to find discrepancies," he told WORLD. "The big picture here is that he talked about the incident in the first place under pressure from no one to do so."
Bundy expressed hope that the early September distraction would give way to discussion of more relevant issues as the race moves into the fall-namely the candidates' respective positions on Iraq, where Cantwell is most vulnerable. The Democratic senator has received considerable criticism from the anti-war movement within her base. She voted to authorize the war in 2002 and has never called for immediate withdrawal, as many of her constituents would like.
Cantwell's more moderate stance provoked several anti-war candidates to challenge her for the Democratic nomination. But Cantwell, who maintains substantial independent wealth from her time as vice president of RealNetworks, convinced primary opponent Mark Wilson to drop out and paid the former Green Party devotee $8,000 per month to join her campaign. She made a similar offer to anti-war challenger Hong Tran. "She was trying to buy off the opposition," Tran told WORLD. "Right after Mark Wilson took the job, her campaign chairman called me and asked if I would join the campaign as well. I said, 'Forget it.'"
Tran, who fell well short of making a serious run for her party's nomination, accuses Cantwell of holding the same position on Iraq as McGavick-thus providing little real choice for the sizable Northwest contingent advocating an immediate withdrawal of troops. Both candidates favor the acceleration of plans to transfer responsibility to the Iraqi government and Iraqi military but neither approves of setting a specific deadline for the completion of that shift. Bundy readily agreed that "their views are markedly similar."
Cantwell campaign spokesperson Amanda Mahnke did not return WORLD's requests for comment. But in an effort to distance herself from McGavick, Cantwell recently told reporters she would not have voted to authorize war in Iraq if she had known what she does now.
The question is whether anti-war voters' dissatisfaction with Cantwell will cost her on Election Day. Tran believes yes: "She's now strategizing that she has to at least sound anti-war in order to win reelection. Many Democrats see right through that," she said. "Before I even joined the race, many Democrats were calling into radio stations and writing newspapers saying that they would not vote for Cantwell under any circumstances."
Rather than seek to convince such disgruntled Democrats of Cantwell's anti-war credentials, party leaders in the state aim to rally support behind the one maxim on which all Democrats can agree: Bush is bad. A statewide stunt dubbed "Vote Bush-McGavick" warns voters that putting McGavick in office will simply further the current administration's agenda.
But McGavick diverges from President Bush on numerous issues, most notably abortion. In standing against a federal ban on the practice, he, like Cantwell, runs the risk of dividing his base. In a letter explaining his position to LifePAC of Southwest Washington, McGavick, a Catholic, wrote, "I hope to live long enough to see the day when no one chooses abortion. However, I believe that the progress on winning hearts and minds will stop the minute Americans believe the goal of the Life community is to prevent individuals from making their own decision."
McGavick opposes taxpayer funding for abortion but advocates federal support for embryonic stem-cell research. He is also in favor of parental consent laws for underage females seeking abortions and approves of the ban on partial-birth abortion. That mixed position confuses Dan Kennedy of Human Life of Washington, a leading pro-life group that will not endorse McGavick. "It's clear that he doesn't meet our criteria," Kennedy said. "In trying to discern from what he's saying some lowest common denominator in terms of principle, I haven't been able to do that yet."
McGavick's effort to straddle the middle ground has not curried favor with leading pro-abortion groups either. Karen Cooper, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, calls him a "slick salesman; every time I turn around I hear something different from him about where he stands." NARAL has given full endorsement to Cantwell, who voted against the ban on partial-birth abortion and opposes parental consent laws.
David Olson, a close follower of the race and professor of political science at the University of Washington, believes McGavick's identification with the socially liberal wing of the Republican Party will likely help him in the general election. In a state split almost evenly between the two major parties, he contends the election will turn on the votes of suburban Republican women in the greater Seattle area who have defected to Democrats in recent years but could return to their party for McGavick: "These women are economic conservatives, but they're social liberals on abortion, on gay rights, on flag burning, you name the issue."
Olson lists a long line of socially conservative Republican candidates in the state who have lost. He says McGavick's softer stance will produce a tight election-at least as close as 52 percent to 48 percent.
Kennedy questions the implication that a social liberal is necessary to ensure a competitive race. He cites Republican Dino Rossi, an unapologetic pro-life advocate who appeared to win the state's governorship in 2004 before multiple recounts and a lawsuit handed the victory to Democrat Christine Gregoire by 133 votes. Many GOP faithful hoped Rossi would launch a senatorial campaign against Cantwell, but he instead plans to run for governor again in 2008.
Kennedy said McGavick is still a better choice than Cantwell in the fight to protect unborn children. But like every anti-war Democrat voting for Cantwell, pro-life Republicans will hold their noses while casting ballots for McGavick.