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Saturday, June 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:50 A.M.
Underdog candidate keeps at GOP race
By Jim Brunner
When U.S. Senate candidate Reed Davis finally delivered the speech he'd dubbed "too dangerous for the Republican Party to hear" this month in Bellevue, a couple of things were immediately clear.
First, the speech didn't sound all that dangerous, consisting mainly of standard conservative Republican positions.
Second, the party's decision to prohibit Davis from speaking at the state convention captured far more publicity than the speech itself would have.
Davis was squelched because he had refused to sign a pledge not to criticize fellow Republicans the GOP's so-called "11th commandment." After convention delegates voted to uphold that decision, a defiant Davis hosted a spaghetti dinner at a nearby hotel ballroom and spoke to a hundred or so supporters there.
A political-science professor at Seattle Pacific University, Davis, 50, is running a shoestring primary campaign against U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, the Republican favorite to take on Democratic incumbent Sen. Patty Murray in November. Davis has almost no money and few endorsements but insists he's in the race to stay.
Davis' beef with Nethercutt centers on federal spending, which Davis thinks has grown irresponsibly despite a Republican president and a GOP majority in Congress. He cited a report by the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank, that found that discretionary, nonmilitary spending has increased 36 percent during the Bush presidency.
Flap stirred attention
Thanks to the convention flap, Davis got plenty of attention for a couple of days. Reporters swarmed around him at the convention hall. Talk-radio stations clamored for interviews. The controversy even earned a report for a national audience on Fox News.
Yet Davis has few of the usual trappings of a successful Senate candidate. He has never run for public office. His campaign has no office and no paid campaign workers and had raised just $33,000 by the end of March.
Nethercutt, who has represented Eastern Washington's 5th Congressional District since 1995, has a statewide campaign including 20 paid staff members and the backing of the White House and national Republican leaders. He had raised $2.2 million through March.
Nethercutt also has the backing of state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance, who has worked to consolidate party support early and focus attention on Murray. Vance dismisses the Davis campaign as irrelevant.
"After this weekend, it's not going to matter," Vance predicted on the morning of the GOP convention.
But later that night, as Davis supporters sipped wine and mingled at his spaghetti dinner, there was an aura of celebration mixed in with the righteous indignation.
"Vance has given him a million dollars' worth of publicity for free," said a smiling Steve Cain, a Davis supporter from Gig Harbor, Pierce County. "He should have just let it lie."
Davis said his campaign signed up a couple of hundred new volunteers as a result of the convention fight.
Davis has taught at SPU, a private Christian college, since 1989, and many current and former students are enthusiastic volunteers for his campaign. He lives in Maple Valley with his wife, Maggie, who teaches kindergarten.
He's steeped in Republican politics, having served as chairman of the King County Republican Party for eight years until losing a re-election bid in 2002 to Pat Herbold.
Davis had fallen out of favor after a string of GOP losses in key state legislative races. Critics said he was abrasive and didn't raise enough money.
"He doesn't play well with others," said Bob Strauss, president of the Eastside Republican Club and a member of the state party's executive board. "He'd rather see us go down in flames than to bend a little bit."
Herbold, who is married to former Microsoft executive Bob Herbold, has better connections with the party's big donors. In her first year as county chairwoman, she raised $386,000, well above the party's haul during Davis' final two years.
Davis has a core of enthusiastic supporters who remain bitter that Vance and other GOP leaders have denied him an equal footing in the Senate primary. While Davis has been locked out of party events, the state executive board recently voted to waive its usual rules and grant Nethercutt pre-primary access to donor lists and other valuable party resources.
Vance has made no secret of his desire to avoid messy primary fights. "Why do it? Because our objective is to win in November," he said.
That strategy worked in the gubernatorial race, when underdog candidate Federico Cruz dropped out, leaving the way clear for party favorite Dino Rossi.
Davis said he has no intention of leaving the race and vows to be on the GOP primary ballot in September. He likes to point out that both Nethercutt and Murray were considered underdogs before they were first elected.
Davis said Nethercutt has baggage as a candidate, citing his broken promise on term limits. (In 1994, when he defeated then-House Speaker Tom Foley, Nethercutt pledged to serve only three terms. He reneged on that promise in 2000 and was re-elected.)
"I just don't think George Nethercutt has a message at all," Davis said. "I think a primary race is a healthy thing. There are real issues driving this campaign."
Nethercutt has tried his best to ignore Davis and usually doesn't refer to him in campaign speeches. There are no plans for the two to debate.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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