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Originally published Thursday, November 9, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Election 2006

Spotlight on self may have hurt McGavick

Friends and political allies of Mike McGavick said there was nothing the former insurance executive could have done to unseat Democratic...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Friends and political allies of Mike McGavick said there was nothing the former insurance executive could have done to unseat Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, the tide against Republicans simply too swift to defy.

It was a perspective shared by the candidate.

"It was a heck of a tsunami," McGavick said on Wednesday. "The one grace that comes with an event like this, you don't sit around and say, 'If I had just done this one thing differently.' "

Although McGavick refused to second-guess his campaign strategy, there's plenty to give him pause.

Not counting a $2.5 million personal contribution, McGavick raised less money than Republican Rep. George Nethercutt, who lost a Senate race in 2004 to Sen. Patty Murray.

If current trends continue, McGavick will receive the smallest percentage of any major party candidate running to represent Washington in the U.S. Senate in more than 20 years.

What went wrong?

Why did a well-regarded, politically savvy businessman fare so poorly?

To be sure, McGavick racked up numerous newspaper editorial endorsements and received support from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other political luminaries.

Cantwell ran a disciplined, well-financed effort that stressed her work on energy and environmental policies.

She significantly broadened her support since her narrow 2000 victory against Slade Gorton, when she won only five counties.

This year, she dominated the western half of the state and beat McGavick in a few traditional GOP counties in Eastern Washington.

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But some familiar with McGavick's 13-month effort said the campaign committed several errors.

A campaign manager for Gorton's successful race in 1988, McGavick assumed a greater role in his own election effort than a typical candidate, said Gary Smith, a Seattle public-affairs executive who served on McGavick's kitchen cabinet and gave him high marks.

Given the climate against Republicans, it was important for McGavick to distance himself from his party, Smith said.

McGavick tried to make the election about himself, arguing that his intelligence and temperament made him superior to Cantwell.

In essence, McGavick was selling McGavick.

"He owned the message," Smith said.

Some observers said that focus made the campaign suffer from a "cult of personality," believing McGavick could outwit and out-charm Cantwell without acknowledging his weaknesses.

A multimillionaire who lived in an exclusive gated community, McGavick left his job as chief executive of Safeco with a $28 million payout and a record that included laying off 1,700 employees.

"Rich insurance executive is not always the most compelling background," said Brett Bader, a Republican political consultant who did not work on the McGavick campaign.

Bader and others said the high point of the Senate race came in early October, when McGavick unveiled radio and television ads touting differences between him and Cantwell, particularly criticizing her vote to allow illegal immigrants to earn Social Security benefits.

The Cantwell campaign was forced to respond, running an ad that claimed McGavick was lying and that he would privatize Social Security.

Another Cantwell ad highlighted McGavick's Safeco job cuts.

McGavick, instead of going after Cantwell, went on the defensive, explaining his stance on Social Security and his business record.

"At the end, the campaign was as much offended that Maria's campaign would knowingly speak an untruth," Smith said, adding: "There is not a lot of value second-guessing anything because I'm convinced all the things you could question wouldn't have made any difference."

Although McGavick didn't pump as much of his own fortune into the campaign as some people thought he might, he said money wasn't a factor.

"Now that we know this year was going to be one of those big sweep years, explain to me why they think more money would have mattered? They're not thinking realistically," he said.

McGavick said he hasn't thought about his future.

The morning after the election was the first day he woke up with no place to go since he was kid.

"I'm going to enjoy this feeling for a little while."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com

U.S. Senate vote tally
Ballots counted as of 6:30 p.m. Wednesday
Candidate Votes Pct.
Maria Cantwell (D) 737,738 57.9%
Mike McGavick (R) 497,501 39%

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