Will Sen. Cantwell get a free ride in 2012 re-election bid?
No Republican candidates have emerged to challenge two-term Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell.
Seattle Times political reporter
Washington Republicans already have fielded formidable candidates for some of 2012's marquee political contests, including governor and attorney general.
Now there's that little matter of the U.S. Senate race.
So far, the GOP has found no one to run against Sen. Maria Cantwell, the two-term incumbent Democrat, despite continued signs that a weak economy may threaten the re-election prospects of President Obama and Democrats nationally.
Although the 2012 election is 16 months away, time is growing short for a Republican here to attract attention from big-money outfits that will pour TV ads into states where they believe Democrats are vulnerable. Last week, for example, the conservative group Crossroads GPS targeted five Democratic senators as part of a $7 million ad blitz. Cantwell was not among them.
Why the free pass so far? Cantwell's poll numbers show some weakness. While her colleague, Sen. Patty Murray, won re-election last year in part because of her work bringing home federal dollars, Cantwell is known more for championing important but wonky changes to financial-industry rules.
Still, after years of defeats in top races, Washington Republicans suffer from a weak bench, with no obvious candidate of statewide prominence to call on. Meanwhile, they face an electorate dominated by the hugely Democratic tilt of Seattle.
Former state Republican Chairman Chris Vance said that despite the seeming opening for a Cantwell challenger, "right now, it's very much in doubt whether there is going to be a strong candidate."
"The Republican brand got hammered on the West Coast during the Bush years, and it has not recovered," Vance said. "There are just so many more Democrats than Republicans in Washington state right now — the math just becomes very difficult."
Kirby Wilbur, the state Republican party chairman, said he's still looking and has been meeting with prospects. "We'll have a credible candidate," he said. "It's getting later, but it's not too late."
The most frequently mentioned name in GOP circles has been Susan Hutchison, the former TV newscaster who lost the 2009 King County executive race to Dow Constantine.
Hutchison said last week she has been focused lately on family matters, not politics, citing her son's high-school graduation and the death of a parent.
"At this point, I am not making a decision," she said.
But Hutchison said she gets asked about the Senate race "virtually daily" by "both Republicans and Democrats."
"There is a group of Democrats who yearn for a return to statesmanlike senators of the Scoop Jackson variety. They're weary of the lack of leadership of our delegation," said Hutchison, who sought to downplay her Republican ties during the county executive race.
The previous week, Hutchison was in Budapest, Hungary, for the dedication of a statue of former President Reagan. She attended at the invitation of Hungarian groups and the Ronald Reagan Foundation, according to her Facebook page.
U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, the Republican from Auburn, has said he is mulling a Senate run, too. His staff referred back to his previous statements when asked for an update on Reichert's intentions.
Wilbur said he believes Reichert will seek re-election to his 8th District House seat, which should grow safer for him in this year's redistricting process.
Another possible contender, Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant, said he's concentrating on creating jobs and protecting the environment at the Port. He's up for re-election to that position this fall. After that, Bryant said, "I'll look at the landscape as anybody would."
Cantwell, 54, was elected to the Senate in 2000, defeating Republican incumbent Slade Gorton. She spent more than $10 million of her own money on the race — a fortune she'd amassed working as an executive for tech company RealNetworks.
Cantwell's office had no comment on her re-election prospects. "Senator Cantwell is focused on getting our economy back on track and fighting for Washington state families in the U.S. Senate," said her spokesman, Jared Leopold, in a statement.
Last week, a Cantwell-sponsored rule went into effect giving the Commodity Futures Trading Commission more power to crack down on what her office called "Enron style" manipulation of commodity and derivatives markets.
Cantwell also recently pushed the Federal Trade Commission to open an investigation into whether a recent gas-price spike was caused by market manipulation. Two FTC probes of previous gas-price spikes found no proof of manipulation.
Her 2012 re-election campaign had raised $3.7 million through March, according to a report filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). She reported $1.3 million cash on hand. Second-quarter fundraising totals are due to the FEC this week.
By this time in the 2006 election cycle, when Cantwell ran for her second term, her Republican opponent Mike McGavick had all but declared. McGavick resigned his position as Safeco CEO in mid-July 2005, clearing the way for his exploratory committee followed by a formal campaign announcement that fall.
McGavick lost badly to Cantwell, taking less than 40 percent of the vote.
Dwight Pelz, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said he didn't want to speculate on whether Cantwell will get a free ride to a third term next year. He noted that last year, Republican Dino Rossi was a very late entrant into the race to challenge Sen. Patty Murray.
"We are prepared, if she (Cantwell) faces a stiff challenge, to run a strong campaign," Pelz said.
But at this point, the Senate race is shaping up to be far less competitive than the highly anticipated gubernatorial contest between Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna.
Vance, the former state GOP chairman, said it will be easier for McKenna to overcome the state's Democratic leanings in the governor's race because he can talk about change after 30 years of Democratic control.
That's harder in a federal race, Vance said, where too many voters may associate Republicans with presidential aspirants like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, who are too conservative for swing voters here.
"If a Republican is going to have any chance to beat Cantwell, they have to immediately and sharply distance themselves from the national Republican Party," Vance said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com
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