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Originally published Sunday, October 28, 2012 at 7:02 PM

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Attorney general's race tightening; Republican ad blitz may be factor

An unprecedented $2.9 million ad blitz by the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group, appears to have tightened the state attorney general's race between Democrat Bob Ferguson and Republican Reagan Dunn.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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An extraordinary ad blitz by a national Republican group appears to have tightened the state attorney general's race.

The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) has pumped $2.9 million into ads running in Washington criticizing Democratic candidate Bob Ferguson. The ads seem to have helped close the gap between Ferguson and his Republican opponent, Reagan Dunn.

Ferguson held leads of 8 and 13 percentage points in polls by two different firms last month. That lead had shrunk to 2 percentage points in polls this month by the same firms, Survey USA and Elway Research.

The RSLC expenditure equals what the two candidates have spent altogether, and it is three times more than a competing Democratic effort has reported raising in the race. It also is the largest investment the national GOP group ever has made in a single race, according to an RSLC spokesman.

"Our evidence is circumstantial here," pollster Stuart Elway said about the ads and Ferguson's apparently declining lead. "But it does not refute" the idea that RSLC ads attacking Ferguson have had an impact.

Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University professor, agreed. The shifting poll numbers "are probably an effect" of the GOP ads, which started running Oct. 5, Donovan said.

The most recent Survey USA poll was conducted Oct. 12-14; the Elway Poll was done Oct. 18-21. Both were completed before a Democratic group, the Washington Committee for Justice and Fairness, started running ads attacking Dunn.

Donovan said the GOP ads might be persuasive because few voters know much about the candidates for attorney general, a race far down the ballot that is overshadowed by campaigns for governor and initiatives to legalize gay marriage and marijuana.

"You might see a bigger effect of $3 million in the attorney general's race than in the governor's race. There's probably a lot more marginal return for the dollar," Donovan said.

The race is important for several reasons. The office is considered a springboard to loftier positions. Ferguson and Dunn are seen as rising stars in their parties. And across the country, state attorneys general are evenly divided with 25 Republicans and 25 Democrats.

The RSLC ads are considered an independent expenditure, meaning they can't be coordinated in any way with Dunn.

Spokesman Adam Temple said the Washington, D.C.-based group has spent so heavily because the race is a priority, it's winnable and Dunn is seen as a strong candidate.

Founded in 2002 by Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, the RSLC exists, according to its website, to build the party's "farm team."

The group's mission is to elect down-ballot, state-level Republicans for positions such as state legislator, lieutenant governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

The group has raised $26 million for this year's election, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, and spent $19 million as of late September. Its biggest contributors are Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Reynolds American, Devon Energy, Altria Group and Wynn Resorts.

No donors from Washington state show up in the group's top 20 donors. The biggest donors from this state: Expedia, $56,215; Building Industry Association of Washington, $50,000; Transalta, $50,000; Mike's Hard Lemonade $20,299; Princess Cruises, $20,000; Premera Blue Cross $20,000.

It's not unusual for national groups to participate in this state's election of an attorney general. The RSLC spent nearly $500,000 helping Rob McKenna in 2008. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $1.5 million in 2004 against Democratic candidate Deborah Senn.

Travis Berry, spokesman for the Democratic Attorneys General Association, believes the RSLC is investing in Dunn because of his pedigree; He's the son of the late congresswoman Jennifer Dunn. "I think Republicans owe the family a lot of favors," he said.

The ads might have had modest success, he added, in tightening the race. "But that seems to have stopped," he said, once Ferguson and the national Democratic group began airing ads to counter the RSLC.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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