Senate hopeful Dino Rossi sticks to economic message
The GOP challenger to Democrat Patty Murray is trying to navigate a path between fired-up tea-party supporters and the moderates he needs to win in November.
Seattle Times staff reporter
SPOKANE — Dino Rossi has been a star of the state Republican Party for nearly a decade, but when his campaign for U.S. Senate stopped in Spokane last week, he got little star treatment.
At a breakfast hosted by the Spokane GOP, the party faithful peppered Rossi with pointed questions. Are you a RINO — a Republican in name only? How pro-life are you, really?
And, most directly: Why vote for you and not Clint Didier, the tea-party favorite also in the race?
Rossi paused. "I don't run against Republicans. I've got three months to compare and contrast myself with Patty Murray," he said. "You decide for yourself."
The questions Rossi fielded in Spokane may not have been what he expected when he came out of political retirement to challenge Murray, the incumbent Democratic senator. But partisan anger is at a boil on the ideological right, and Rossi is trying to navigate a path between fired-up tea-party supporters and the moderates he needs to win in November.
During three days on the campaign trail last week, Rossi steadily blasted Murray and Democrats as fiscally reckless and "in need of adult supervision." With a small-government platform, he champions tax cuts and less regulation, calling for the repeal of both the new federal health-care law and the financial-overhaul law.
Despite skepticism in some corners of the GOP, Rossi is endorsed by big-name conservatives in the party and carries a substantial lead in polls over other Republican challengers in Tuesday's primary election. He raised $1.4 million in campaign cash during his first month in the race.
For Democrats, Rossi's platform represents a return to the Bush years.
"He says, 'Cut taxes for the rich and deregulate Wall Street,' " said U.S. Rep Jay Inslee, a Democrat supporting Murray. "We had that failed experiment. Why he'd want to replicate that failed experiment makes no sense unless you want to make some lobbyists in D.C. happy."
On the campaign trail
On the campaign trail
Rossi's stump speech is heavy on a biography that is now familiar: an Eastside real-estate investor who served two terms in the state Senate — including one year as the chief budget writer — before a razor-thin loss to Chris Gregoire in the 2004 governor's race.
After a second loss to her in 2008, he retreated from political life to join an Everett real-estate investment firm. He entered the Senate race only in May.
Even while lobbing his sharpest attacks, Rossi retains a smooth style, rich with metaphor but often light on detail. Talking about immigration overhaul, he calls for a "tall fence with a high gate."
He says little about Afghanistan or hot-button social issues. Pressed at the Spokane breakfast forum, Rossi said he opposes abortion for "anything other than maybe rape, incest or life of the mother."
His primary focus is on the economy. The federal deficit is the largest since World War II. The federal debt is at $120,000 per taxpayer. The state's "functional unemployment rate" — including the underemployed and those who've quit looking — is 17.4 percent.
Rossi sees the cause of the 2008 financial crash through a partisan lens, attributing it to expansion of the Community Reinvestment Act, first passed under President Carter, and reckless lending encouraged by Democrat-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Rossi's message — "bringing adult supervision to Washington, D.C." — targets Murray's prolific earmarks, such as her $3 million appropriation in 2001 for a failed maritime museum on the Seattle waterfront.
"I think that most people, Democrats and Republicans alike, see that the spending is bankrupting America," Rossi said in an interview. "Until we balance the budget, we need to ban earmarks."
On the campaign trail, Rossi repeatedly refers to a National Journal ranking in which Murray was called the most liberal U.S. senator. That was in 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Ted Kennedy — both consistently more liberal than Murray — missed too many votes to be counted. Since 2005, Murray has ranked between No. 8 and No. 30. In 2009, she was No. 17.
University of Washington political-science professor Matt Barreto said Rossi has run a "smart campaign" thus far. Rossi appeals to fiscally conservative tea-party activists but has not embraced the furthest-right proposals, such as banning automatic citizenship for children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants.
Rossi can benefit from the tea-party activism, "but you can't alienate the people in the middle who decide elections," said Barreto.
Challenge from the right
When Rossi flew into Spokane last week, he missed driving across the I-90 corridor that is festooned with huge Didier billboards.
The Spokane County GOP chairwoman, Cindy Zapotocky, said Didier's campaign is impressive. Meanwhile, she's had trouble even getting bumper stickers from the Rossi campaign. "He evidently feels name recognition alone will get him through the primary," she said.
Rossi has met privately with tea-party groups around the state, and has signed the tea party's Contract From America. But Dann Selle, a tea-party leader in Spokane, says Rossi retains the "stink of establishment. Didier doesn't. Didier comes across as down to earth."
The partisan anger that Didier has tapped was heard at a business round-table lunch in Spokane.
One woman, the owner of two gyms and a temporary-employment agency, was venting about a pro-union bill supported by Murray when she blurted out: "She ought to be shot. Murray and (Sen. Maria) Cantwell ought to be shot."
Rossi quickly pointed out a reporter in the room, and then said, "That's not really what you meant." The businesswoman quickly agreed: "I didn't mean that."
Speaking small business
If Rossi was challenged by some in Spokane, he was in his comfort zone at a campaign event last week at a Kent manufacturer, Magnum Venus Plastech.
The company's president and part-owner, Tom Hedger, said his father died in April, during the one-year exemption from the federal estate tax. If his father had died when the tax was in place, his father's estate would have owed $3 million or more in taxes, likely forcing the sale of the company, Hedger said.
"It's twisted that you should have to be put in that position," said Rossi, who supports permanent repeal of the estate tax.
Rossi, wearing polished wingtips before a crowd of workers in steel-toed boots, blasted the health-care and financial overhauls as "jobs killers." He described the need for "reasonable taxes and predictable regulation" for businesses like Hedger's to hire again.
"I am a small businessman, guys, I get this," he said. "I come from a world of commissions. No salary, no benefits, if you don't work you don't eat."
Referring to Hedger's story about his father's death, Rossi said, "I think I'm going to have to bring you on the campaign trail with me," prompting a round of laughter from the workers.
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.