Cover Story

'Holes in our national trust'

"'Holes in our national trust'" Continued...

Issue: "At the wire," Nov. 6, 2010

"If you ask them if a divided government is a good thing, most people here would say yes," Alexander said. "They would really like to see another party control Congress that is different from the White House."

The party's D.C. leadership has spent the last two years pulling Pacific Northwest Democrats further than many wanted to go. After the ambitious policies of the last two years, Washington voters seem less enamored with Barack Obama the president than they were with Barack Obama the candidate, said Alexander.

That could be bad news for the job security of incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. She used a "mom in tennis shoes" campaign shtick to get elected to the Senate in 1994 and has since cruised through two reelections. But Republicans "saw blood in the water," said Alexander. In challenger Dino Rossi, the GOP offered up a conservative who might have the tools to win.

Rossi, a former state senator, lost the closest gubernatorial race in U.S. history in 2004. Certified as governor-elect after the election, Rossi lost in a mandated recount by a mere 133 votes. But the drama surrounding the defeat boosted Rossi's name recognition.

"In a lot of people's minds he was robbed of the governor's race," said Laura Worf with Olympia's homebuilder's association. "People feel like he is owed one. He is the nightmare opponent for Murray."

Sensing this, Murray came out with an aggressive barrage of negative ads after Labor Day. Rossi has withstood the attacks. After a slight dip in earlier polls, an Oct. 8 poll by Rasmussen showed Rossi with a 49 percent to 46 percent lead.

Trying to end the race early, Murray burned her money advantage with her September offensive. At the same time Rossi's own fundraising haul of $4.4 million in the last quarter is being supplemented by $4 million additional dollars from outside Republican groups.

This enabled Rossi to counterattack with his own commercials highlighting Murray's insider status. Lobbyists have given more money to Murray this election cycle than any senator except embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Beyond this $665,000 cash infusion, Murray's tennis shoe mom moniker has taken additional hits with the report that at least 17 of her former staffers now work as lobbyists. Murray sent nearly $20 million in earmarks their way in 2011 spending bills.

A state where 58 percent of voters backed Obama in 2008 now has a Democratic incumbent in trouble. If this seat goes Rossi's way, it will be a huge step toward a Republican takeover of the Senate.

For the final stop of my cross-country trip I headed to the Seattle area. This is the state's Democratic core. Murray needs a big turnout here to hold onto her seat.

Not far outside the city, in a suburb of mini-mansions, I met John Jensen, 49. Jensen fixes roofs. He also organizes well-attended candidate forums for the county. He agreed to meet with me, but he couldn't leave his current job-replacing tile on a multimillion-dollar home. So I put aside my fear of heights and joined Jensen at his worksite overlooking two of Seattle's lakes.

"I'm concerned that there is a lack of understanding by many in power of the real impact that taxes and regulations have on businesses," said Jensen, who recently had more than 150 people come to one of his forums to meet the candidates. "I don't understand how smart people can continue to do these things."

Still, voters put such people in positions of power, and Jensen thinks citizens need to look in the mirror for the source of their anxiety and anger over the state of the country.

"I blame bad contractors for bad houses," he said, "and I blame voters for bad politicians."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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