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Cantwell-McGavick Senate race a contrast of moderates
Seattle Times staff reporter
The race for U.S. Senate is off to a tiptoe instead of a sprint.
Although Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell has long been considered politically vulnerable, her main Republican rival, Mike McGavick, has come out of the blocks discussing the need for civility in Congress, a tack even he admits doesn't generate much excitement.
The somnolent campaign so far belies its potential to be a close contest with national interest. And with the candidates expected to spend about $28 million total by November, it'll be hard to miss.
Despite their stark differences, the matchup between Cantwell and McGavick presents a contrast of moderates.
Cantwell alienated some in her party for supporting the Iraq war, and she was one of only 19 Democrats who opposed an attempt to block Judge Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court in January.
McGavick notes with pride that his opposition to a federal abortion ban received a chilly reception from the Washington Federation of Republican Women. And last week, he issued a news release contending the Congress and White House — both controlled by Republicans — were partly to blame for high gas prices.
The Democratic incumbent
Professional experience: Public affairs, Northwest Strategies, 1985-86. Senior vice president, RealNetworks, 1995-2000.
Political experience: Worked in Ohio for Jerry Springer's 1982 campaign for governor. Set up regional office in Seattle for Sen. Alan Cranston's presidential campaign in 1983. Served in state House of Representatives, 1987-92; U.S. House of Representatives, 1992-94, U.S. Senate, 2000-present.
Source: Cantwell campaign
To win, Cantwell must prove she's an accomplished lawmaker with a popular record. McGavick must persuade voters in a blue state to boot out a Democratic incumbent at a time when President Bush's poll ratings are hovering at historic lows.
And while the Iraq war may not generate much debate between Cantwell and McGavick, it will be a backbeat played by a host of independent candidates.
Cantwell, 47, is single and a die-hard baseball fan, keeping track of Mariner games on a white board in her Senate office.
A former state legislator and House member, Cantwell poured $10 million of her own money into defeating Republican Slade Gorton by 2,229 votes in 2000 — a squeaker that instantly made her re-election a matter of speculation.
The Republican challenger
Professional experience: Public affairs, The Rockey Company, 1983-86. Vice president, Washington Roundtable, 1986-88. Public affairs, The Gallatin Group, 1991-92. Vice chairman, American Insurance Association, 1992-95. President, chief operating officer, CNA Financial, 1995-2000. President, chief executive officer, Safeco, 2001-05.
Political experience: Never held elected office. Served as legislative aide for Sen. Slade Gorton from 1981-83. Campaign manager for Gorton, 1988. Chief of staff for Gorton, 1989-90.
Sources: McGavick campaign, American Insurance Association
While she's not known as a firebrand in the Senate, Cantwell issues a steady stream of news releases expressing outrage over issues ranging from lax border security to gaps in the Medicare drug program, each promising that Cantwell's opponents have a fight on their hands. Even her allies urged her to concentrate on fewer issues. Cantwell's greatest successes recently involve energy policy, most prominently, her support of the Snohomish County Public Utility District in its legal troubles with Enron, and her victory keeping oil companies out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
The League of Conservation Voters was so impressed with Cantwell's environmental record, it endorsed her more than a year before the election.
That's what Peter House wants the party faithful to remember on Election Day. But the chairman of the 36th District Democrats in Ballard says many on the left are baffled by Cantwell's support of the Iraq war.
"The group that is most upset about the war is disproportionately the people who get off their butts in campaigns," House said, adding that there's a perception that Cantwell has been "fairly tight-lipped" about her war views.
Unlike other pro-war Democrats such as Reps. Norm Dicks of Bremerton and Adam Smith of Tacoma, Cantwell so far has refused to characterize her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq invasion as a mistake.
Instead, she focuses on the future of the occupation rather than how she would have voted in hindsight.
"2006 needs to be a year of transition, and I'm fighting to get the Iraqi people on their feet and get our troops home," she said.
"Did you think we needed to get rid of Saddam Hussein? Yes, and on the resolution I haven't changed my mind. I'm going to talk to them [anti-war Democrats] about what I think we need in 2006, and they can make the judgment on that."
Green Party candidate Aaron Dixon, beset by reports that he owes traffic fines and hasn't voted in two decades, along with perennial candidates Democrat Mark Wilson and Libertarian Bruce Guthrie, say they speak for the majority of voters who tell pollsters the invasion was a mistake.
In the end, Democrats will be motivated to turn out for Cantwell by the possibility that their party will pick up several seats in the U.S. Senate, said Paul Berendt, former state party chairman.
"She needs to communicate that she voted for dozens of issues important to liberals and progressives, and handing a Senate seat to Mike McGavick puts all that in jeopardy," Berendt said.
Civility in Congress
The first thing you notice about McGavick is his voice, a sandpapery tenor that's often mistaken for an early case of laryngitis. But McGavick, 48, is known for his oratory, addressing crowds without notes and preferring to stand beside the podium instead of behind it.
A Seattle native, he lives in the Highlands in Shoreline with his wife and two children. An older son lives with his first wife in Pennsylvania. He drives a Mini Cooper.
If he wins, McGavick would be the first U.S. senator from Washington to go to Capitol Hill without elective-office experience since Lewis Schwellenbach won a seat in 1934 — although McGavick knows both campaigning and legislating.
His experience as Gorton's top Senate aide in 1989-90 and his stewardship of Safeco insurance make him one of the strongest GOP candidates in the nation, said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
The fact that he doesn't have a voting record is an asset, she said, and allows him to criticize the Republican-controlled Congress.
To win, McGavick must raise money (about $14 million, by most estimates), run a nearly perfect campaign, and "keep Bush at arm's length," she said.
McGavick would vote to open drilling in the Arctic and urge more action on global warming, although he opposes the Kyoto Protocol on limiting greenhouse gases. And he said Cantwell was too rough with oil-industry executives when they testified about high gas prices before her Senate committee last November.
While Cantwell frequently describes herself as a fighter, McGavick is following the strategy of attacking his opponent's self-declared strengths. He said Cantwell is unnecessarily abrasive, particularly when she successfully led the effort to defeat a measure last December allowing oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness.
"To lead the fight against ANWR was a huge mistake, and I can find no reason why our state's senator would lead the fight," he said. "When it came to how Alaskans were going to live, she sure spent a lot of our state's [political] capital."
McGavick casts himself as a business-savvy problem solver who can work both sides of the aisle.
But championing civility has its risks. McGavick conceded the issue fails to inspire the party base and he risks being labeled a hypocrite when independent groups attack Cantwell on his behalf.
"Am I astute enough to know that I will probably take the blame for actions of others? I am. I control only one thing, and that's what my voice does, and what this campaign does."
In speeches, McGavick saves his greatest ire for pork spending and the federal deficit, two issues for which the Republican-dominated Congress might seem particularly culpable. As for trusting Republicans to restore fiscal discipline, McGavick said: "I'm not asking the voters of this state to trust the Republicans. I'm asking them to trust Mike."
The Rev. Joe Fuiten, president of Washington Evangelicals for Responsible Government, a Christian lobbying group and an informal adviser to McGavick, says the candidate is a centrist on abortion but "not truly pro-choice."
Asked whether conservative Christians would be motivated to turn out on Election Day for a moderate Republican, Fuiten immediately cited Referendum 65, a measure proposed for the November ballot that would repeal the gay-rights bill passed by the Legislature this year. Fuiten is a strong supporter of the referendum.
"I will work like a dog to make sure they turn out," he said.
"Long way to go"
There are 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent in the U.S. Senate. Thirty-three seats are on the ballot; Democrats defend 18, Republicans hold 15.
The Cook Report considers most incumbents safe, including nine Democrats and eight Republicans.
Cantwell's is one of five Senate seats the reports says lean toward the Democratic candidate but aren't a lock. Minnesota, where the incumbent is retiring, is the only Democratic seat listed as a toss-up.
On the other side, the report says six Republican seats — five of them held by incumbents — are a toss-up.
That could steer national party attention away from the Washington state race this November, or provide the GOP with a pleasant surprise in an otherwise bleak election.
Either way, each candidate must raise about $50,000 a day until Nov. 7, and seven months seems like an eternity.
Said Duffy: "This has a long way to go."
Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company