Can Kerry get to Washington (D.C.) without winning Washington (state)?

A guide to the swing states.
Aug. 24 2004 4:36 PM

Washington

It does mean a thing, though it ain't got that swing.

The swingy-ness of a state is typically measured by how frequently it is "right" about the results of presidential elections. A state proves that it deserves its precious ambiguous place on the color-coded map of battleground states by demonstrating that it can help predict the outcome of this year's election. Missouri's claim to be the King of Swing is based on just such a record: only one "wrong" answer in the Electoral College since 1900. Ohio, too, points to its tendency to back the winning candidate: every time since 1964, it brags. Political journalists look to these states for the same reason that Romans studied the flight patterns of birds: We believe they help us divine the future.

By this traditional swing-state standard, Washington state fails miserably. In every close election since 1960, the Evergreen State has backed the loser. And it's done so in a bipartisan manner. It chose Nixon over Kennedy but then spurned Tricky Dick by going for Humphrey in 1968. In 1976, Washington chose Gerald Ford, and in 2000 it went for Al Gore. As one of the ten states to vote for President Dukakis, Washington has shown that it can get it wrong in not-close elections, too. *

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So, perhaps it's actually bad news for Kerry that the buzz in Washington, though both sides deny it, is that the Kerry currently leads by double digits. But if the race in Washington isn't close, why is the state still on the battleground map? On the list of swingers, Washington state doesn't rank high: It's probably No. 19 or so. The Democrats hold six of the state's nine congressional seats and all but two of the statewide offices. * The state hasn't elected a Republican governor since 1980. But the huge amounts of money raised by both campaigns have expanded the presidential race into places that otherwise might be ignored, which is why Washington is theoretically in play. Still, many people in the state think it will be locked up for Kerry before long. In 1988, George H.W. Bush contested Washington until October, when he gave up and focused his resources elsewhere. In 1996, Bob Dole did the same thing. The general sentiment is that President Bush will adhere to precedent.

For once, though, Washington might get lots of the candidates' attention until Election Day. Not because the presidential race is particularly competitive here—it's not—but because Bush and Kerry want to influence the other races on the state's ballot. Sam Rodriguez, the state director for the Kerry campaign, said nearly as much when I asked him why the state was still in play. "It's a swing state because, when you look at other states, I don't think there's any other state with a senator who's being challenged by a sitting congressman, an open governor's seat," two open House seats, and a bunch of other competitive statewide races, he said. Besides, "If we were to do nothing, to do what we did in 2000, then potentially, when we get 10 to 15 days from the election, the race could be really close." It's another implicit admission: The race isn't close right now.

Bush will play here to raise money from wealthy Seattle-area voters (for himself and for the state Republican Party) and to solidify the state's conservative base, and who knows, maybe he can pull an upset in the process. Rodriguez's job is to make sure that doesn't happen. As we sit in a coffeehouse in Seattle's hip Fremont district, he puts his finger on the eastern edge of a map of the state, near Spokane, close to the Idaho border. "That's where we're gonna surprise 'em," he says. "In 2000, the campaign was very Seattle-centric," referring to the Gore campaign, which beat Bush by 184,000 votes in populous King County. That offset the Republican advantage in the rest of the state and carried Gore to a bare 50 percent statewide majority, with Bush grabbing 45 percent and Ralph Nader garnering 4 percent. "They did get the [Democratic] base out, but they got killed over here," Rodriguez says, and he sweeps his hand across the eastern portion of the map. Clinton carried the Spokane media market by 6 points in 1992 and 2 points in 1996, Rodriguez says, but in 2000 Gore lost it by 17 points.

One man who might help Kerry close the gap in eastern Washington is Don Barbieri, the Democratic candidate for the congressional seat that includes Spokane. The race for the seat is open now that George Nethercutt, the Republican who ousted Tom Foley in 1994, is taking on Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. The district leans Republican, but not overwhelmingly so: Only 56 percent of its voters cast ballots for Bush in 2000.

Barbieri is the Ross Perot of the Inland Empire: He's the CEO of the company that runs the Red Lion hotel chain, and he's running on his biography as an independent businessman. The district is a business, he says, and he wants to be the CEO, with the voters as his investors. Barbieri, who says he will join the conservative Blue Dog coalition if he's elected, reduces every issue to business: "Business will not succeed if it doesn't solve the problem of poverty," he tells me. He likes the word "brand," as in, "The brand that's going to allow us to grow rural communities in the 5th District is the brand of a beautiful environment." He also likes the word "nonpartisan": "The majority of us, in a nonpartisan manner, are concerned about whether we've lost that partnership with the world community." He says he supports abortion rights "in an absolutely nonpartisan manner": "A woman's right to choose, just like a man's individual right to bear a firearm, is also strong in the 5th District." Barbieri shares Perot's common-sense reductionism. "We can solve 50 percent of our uninsured by using good, common sense," he tells me. "It's not rocket science stuff. We do it in business."

The Spokane Republicans I talked to on my trip were all worried about Barbieri's candidacy, particularly because the GOP won't have a candidate until after the state's Sept. 14 primary. But Chris Vance, the chairman of the state Republican Party, scoffs at the idea of losing the 5th to Barbieri. "I just don't believe the voters of eastern Washington are going to do anything to help make Nancy Pelosi speaker of the House. And they know what's at stake."

Vance asserts that "political incompetence on the part of the Republican Party," not Washington's Democratic nature, have been the GOP's downfall in the state. He notes that in 1996, the Republicans nominated a candidate for governor whose platform was "God's plan for Washington state." Vance has tried to get the Republicans to draft candidates who are more appealing to moderates and independents. "Are they nice? Do they dress well? Are they friendly? Those things are huge," he says. For the 2004 governor's race, Vance enlisted Dino Rossi, a former state senator who is credited with balancing the state's budget last year, * and Democrats expect the gubernatorial race to be their most competitive. Rodriguez told me he's worried that the Republicans will funnel soft money into the state party for the governor's race and thereby indirectly affect the presidential race.

To buttress his case, Vance touts a Republican National Committee poll from July that showed party identification in Washington state as even. Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York have more Democrats than Republicans, he says, and they all have Republican governors. There's no reason Washington should keep electing only Democratic governors, Vance says. And he's right. Washington state just might have a Republican governor next year. But it won't be sending any Republicans to the Electoral College.

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