U.S. Sen. Patty Murray unwittingly kicked the Republican effort to unseat her into high gear in December. In a high-school honors class in Vancouver, she posed a legitimate question: Why is Osama bin Laden so popular around the world? Her bumbling answer set off a firestorm of coast-to-coast, right-wing outrage. While talk radio and Internet bloggers do their best to keep the embers of that inferno burning, Republican operatives from the White House's senior political advisor, Karl Rove, to the Washington State Republican Party's chair, Chris Vance, are trying to take advantage of the opportunity Democrat Murray gave them to recruit a strong candidate to run against her in 2004. At the top of their wish list is Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, a 12-year veteran of the U.S. House of Representatives who cut her political teeth during the Reagan Revolution. While Dunn makes up her mind, Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, best known as the man who unseated then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley in 1994, is next in line for a run at Murray. Political observers agree either Dunn or Nethercutt needs to decide before too long because the task of unseating an incumbent senator is so difficult.
On Dec. 18, Murray visited Columbia River High School for a "45-minute, broad-ranging discussion with 40 honors students," according to her office. Near the end of the session, Murray, who two months earlier voted against the resolution to give President Bush authorization to use military force against Iraq, asked the students to consider "alternatives to war," according to the Vancouver Columbian. She answered her own question about bin Laden's popularity: "He's been out in these countries for decades building roads, building schools, building day-care facilities, building health care facilities, and the people are extremely grateful. . . . We have not done that. We haven't been out in many of these countries helping them build infrastructure."
The next day, the Columbian printed a story about Murray's remarks; right-wing talk radio and wire services picked up on it immediately; the next day, Matt Drudge, conservative collector of Web news links, linked to the Columbian.
SUDDENLY MURRAY was the subject of a national controversy that continues. The story received an incredible 267,000 page views in its first 10 days on the Columbian's Web site, where the previous record was a mere 18,000, according to the paper. Newspapers across the country carried wire-service accounts; letters to the editor poured in to papers in at least 13 states; editorials appeared in papers including The Washington Post; conservative media outlets, in particular, had a field day.
While Murray drew some defenders—a syndicated columnist or two, the editorial pages of The Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the Bellingham Herald—and some thoughtful criticism in the Post, the Columbian, and Tacoma's News Tribune, most of the editorial response was a revolting combination of factual distortion and viciousness, epitomized by a quip by The Wall Street Journal's online editorial page editor, James Taranto: "Coming next: Patty Murray describes how Hitler built the Autobahn."
Murray was denounced on radio and TV by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Fox News' Brit Hume, among others. In print and online, she was ravaged by national outlets like the Journal, the Washington Times, National Review, and The Weekly Standard, as well as syndicated columnists for major newspaper chains including Gannett and Knight Ridder.
None of which excuses the fact that our state's senior senator did a remarkably poor job of articulating the shortcomings of American foreign policy and the reasons for popular support in many countries of bin Laden's terrorist war on the West. A closer examination of Murray's remarks reveals some complete nonsense (bin Laden hasn't been building any day-care centers), some surprising truths (he did, according to several respected sources, help build roads, tunnels, schools, and hospitals for decades in Afghanistan), and much ambiguity (American's foreign-aid budget has shrunk in recent years, but it remains huge in gross terms, though not as impressive as a proportion of our overall budget). Murray captured very little of this complexity in her remarks.
That's the point, says Washington GOP chair Vance. "The most powerful thing in politics is when you say what everybody is already thinking," he asserts. "Is [Murray] ready for prime time? Her comments were stupid." Vance points out that Washingtonian magazine, in its September 2002 survey of anonymous Capitol Hill staffers, named Murray No. 1 in the "Not a Rocket Scientist" category. (The magazine notes that most of her votes came from GOP staffers.)
Vance says Murray's remarks reveal that she is out of her league in the Senate.
Murray responds: "If I could count the number of times in my life that people put me down . . . " She points out that the famous dismissal that launched her career, "You're just a mom in tennis shoes," was exactly this type of insult. "How many times have people said to me it should be lobbyists and millionaires who" serve in the Senate? She defends her record of delivering much-needed projects in environmental protection, transportation, and water infrastructure for the state. "I am the state's biggest champion," she declares.
In their exchange, we have the broad outlines for the campaign that will emerge in 2004.
REPUBLICANS SAY Washington's Senate campaign will first of all be a referendum on President Bush's national-security measures, foreign policy, and economic program. Their preferred candidates, either Dunn or Nethercutt, are firmly behind the president on all three issues. Murray not only opposes his foreign policy in Iraq, but she also is sharply critical of his domestic program of tax cuts for the rich to improve the economy. Secondly, the GOP campaign will be about Murray's level of competence. Many Republicans believe there will be more gaffes to come that will reveal Murray as a lightweight.
Democrats believe that the race will primarily be about class. Murray's ability, they say, to connect to ordinary Washingtonians, particularly suburban women like herself, is an incredible political asset. State Democratic Party chair Paul Berendt argues: "Every time the Republicans try to put [Murray] down, they essentially are putting down every soccer mom."
Murray's populist profile is reinforced by her dogged devotion to delivering for the state, they continue. "She's kept a lot of jobs here in the state," says Christian Sinderman, a Democratic consultant. "Her achievements are things you can see. It's hard to run against an incumbent who has tangible achievements."
Republicans believe Dunn can counter many of Murray's strengths. Dunn "is a woman. It blunts the gender issue," claims GOP consultant Bret Bader, who worked for Dunn while she was state Republican chair. He enumerates her other strengths: her incumbency in a suburban district; her statewide organization of supporters, both among the grassroots and elected officials, that goes back to her days as party chair; "unparalleled fund-raising prowess"; strong name ID in the populous Puget Sound region; the support of President Bush and his political organization; and the ability to connect with a broad spectrum of Washingtonians, from CEOs to ordinary people in rural communities.
BRING DUNN ON, say the Democrats with delight. Dunn "panders to the rich," says Berendt. "I don't see what the broad appeal is." Sinderman quips, "It's going to be tennis shoes versus tennis bracelets. Tax cuts for the rich versus help for working people."
In addition, Berendt believes, support from Bush may be more of a liability than an asset in Washington. "We've beaten the Bush family three times in this state." The state Democratic Party fared much better in the 2002 midterm elections than other Democrats around the country. Not only did Democrats retain six of the state's nine congressional seats, they also gained seats in the state House of Representatives, although they did lose their narrow majority in the state Senate. Berendt believes the local Democrats' success is directly attributable to being "more aggressive in taking [Bush] on over the war and the economy."
Republicans say the tide will turn their way, if, as they expect, the war against Iraq is as successful as the previous Gulf War and Bush's policies turn the economy around. In addition, Vance promises, the GOP will unite around one strong candidate in 2004. In the past, he claims, Murray had the advantage of taking on Republican candidates who were weakened by tough primaries with the moderate and conservative wings of the GOP tearing into one another with abandon. "Not on my watch!" declares Vance.
He says Dunn "is everybody's first choice" (Nethercutt told The Associated Press that he would not oppose Dunn) and that she knows she must decide soon in order to start the difficult task of unseating an incumbent. No one is predicting with any certainty whether Dunn will enter the race. The terms of the battle, however, have already been set, even if the GOP has not yet chosen its standard-bearer.