Why Dino Rossi isn't courting the tea party
The GOP front-runner skipped the movement's forums, but that likely won't hurt his chances in the 2010 election.
Seattle Times political reporter
BELLINGHAM — At Whatcom Community College's Syre Auditorium last week, the passion of the conservative tea-party movement was on full display.
More than 400 people packed the candidate forum sponsored by the Bellingham Tea Party, cheering raucously for Republican U.S. Senate candidates Clint Didier and Paul Akers as they one-upped each other with calls to chop the federal government down to a size the Founding Fathers might recognize.
The evening had all the flavor of the conservative insurgency that has become this year's popular national political narrative — a tide that has washed away establishment GOP candidates in Utah, Kentucky and Florida in favor of fiery tea-party-backed rivals.
And yet there was one crucial absence: Republican front-runner Dino Rossi, who spent the day at a Spokane Republican women's luncheon. It was the second big tea-party forum he has skipped in recent weeks.
Rossi's snubs are as good an indicator as any that when it comes to Washington's marquee Senate race, the tea-party movement is not likely to play as strong a part as it has in other states.
While some conservatives are grumbling Rossi is taking them for granted, interviews with tea-party activists confirm what recent polls have shown — Rossi can probably distance himself from the tea parties through the Aug. 17 primary and still count on their support in a November matchup with incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
Bellingham doctor Lee Hein and his wife Nancy Hein left last week's tea-party forum irritated Rossi didn't show.
"Dino Rossi lost my vote tonight," Nancy Hein said. "Me too," Lee Hein agreed.
Yet both said they easily could vote for Rossi in November — or anyone facing Murray, whom they blame for growing the size of government. "I don't care if it's Scrooge," he said. "Or Bozo the Clown," she added.
Duane White, a Yakima tea-party organizer, wrote in an editorial recently on the conservative website RedState.com that Rossi is acting like he "doesn't need the grass roots" or the tea party.
"We're almost left with the impression that Dino Rossi thinks he has got this by default because of his name recognition and who he is," White said in an interview.
Lessons in the polls
A two-time GOP gubernatorial candidate, Rossi enjoys a wide lead over Didier and several lesser-known candidates in the Senate race. A SurveyUSA poll conducted in late June for KING-TV found Rossi with support from 33 percent of respondents, compared with 5 percent for Didier and 3 percent for Akers, a Bellingham businessman. (Murray led all candidates with 37 percent.)
In the KING poll, Rossi drew more support from self-identified tea-party backers than any other candidate, findings that were mirrored in another recent poll by Rasmussen Reports.
Under the circumstances, Rossi is playing it smart by avoiding a competition with Didier for tea-party votes, said former state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance.
"Dino Rossi is running against Patty Murray. He should only show up at any sort of debate or forum if Patty Murray is there," Vance said.
In any case, Washington's "top two" primary system makes it much harder for a small group of activists to upend the political order the way they have in other states.
In Utah, for example, Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted in the primary by a few thousand Republican delegates at the GOP convention in May. Here, all candidates appear on the same primary ballot, regardless of party affiliation, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election.
"If Dino Rossi had to battle Didier in a closed primary or a convention system, Didier would give Rossi major heartburn. But that's not our system," Vance said.
Pat Shortridge, Rossi's campaign manager, said he is not trying to dodge tea-party events or turn his back on conservative voters, but he has to pick and choose.
"Our goal is to talk to as many voters as possible. We have a very narrow window. We have five months (until the November election)," Shortridge said. "We can't do everything we'd like to do."
There's also a possible political benefit for Rossi, who may avoid traps by not having to run too far to the right in the primary.
In Nevada, for example, tea-party favorite Sharron Angle has scrambled to downplay some of her more conservative primary-election positions now that she faces Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid in the general election. She even has threatened to sue Reid for reposting some of her old campaign positions on a website.
Democrats have spent the last several years trying to convince voters Rossi is a right-wing extremist on social issues like abortion. Yet Rossi may look more moderate thanks to conservative attacks on him in the primary.
For example, a group of anti-abortion activists recently released a video accusing Rossi of being "OK" with some unborn children being "executed." That's because while Rossi generally opposes abortion, he makes an exception in cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is in jeopardy.
Looking to November
Barring a sudden surge by Didier, Rossi can give up some conservative votes in the primary and focus on appealing to moderates and independents in November.
"I think Rossi is probably playing it exactly correct to go with the center-right approach," said Matt Barreto, associate professor of political science at University of Washington.
A May poll overseen by Barreto found tea-party affiliation divisive in Washington: While 19 percent of voters said they strongly approve of the movement, 27 percent said they strongly disapprove.
"I think we need to keep the tea party in perspective," Barreto said. "They're an interesting and influential group, but they're not going to decide the election."
Last month, Rossi was a no-show at another tea-party forum in Burlington, Skagit County. (His campaign cited a family scheduling conflict.) The event drew a couple of hundred people to a high-school gymnasium.
In Rossi's absence, Didier won the crowd over with his uncompromising talk of cutting the federal government — starting by eliminating the departments of Education and Energy.
He said the U.S. should withdraw from the United Nations, and he mocked those who support a ban on offshore oil drilling in the wake of the BP disaster.
"This is America, for crying out loud. We don't quit," Didier said to loud applause.
In a straw poll after the event, 48 people said they'd support Didier, compared with six for Rossi. Nineteen backed Akers.
Joyce Tomasino, of Sedro-Woolley, said she came away impressed by Didier as the true conservative in the race. But she foresaw no problem voting for Rossi if he faced off against Murray in November.
"Who else am I gonna vote for?" she said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com
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