Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Senator from Safeco?

[[P O L I T I C S]] * No one who pays an ounce of attention to Washington state politics should have been surprised by news that Mike McGavick, who earlier this week announced he would step down as CEO of Seattle-based Safeco Insurance Company, has now decided to run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by the state’s junior senator, Democrat Maria Cantwell. The 47-year-old McGavick is a veteran Republican insider and former top aide to Slade Gorton, the three-term solon whom Cantwell replaced after a close and fiercely contested race in 2000.

With former GOP state legislator Dino Rossi having already taken his name out of the running for the 2006 Senate campaign (after first failing in his drawn-out bid to overturn last year’s gubernatorial match, which he’d lost to Christine Gregoire after three ballot recounts), state Republican Party chairman Chris Vance was scouting around for someone who was both willing to challenge first-termer Cantwell and who might attract a broad following--without also drawing criticism for being too socially conservative in a state where the greatest electoral weight by far rests in liberal Seattle.

McGavick has already attracted some heavy-duty Republican supporters, including Gorton, former U.S. Representative Jennifer Dunn (a Newt Gingrich acolyte), and John Carlson, a conservative Seattle talk-radio host and the big-losing 2000 GOP candidate for governor. And a couple of potential GOP rivals for this Senate nomination have bowed out of the competition since McGavick’s announcement: former Representative Rick White (who, in 1994, beat then-House member Cantwell out of her seat) and Vance himself, who some wags thought wanted to be drafted into the coming race (despite his having lost miserably in his 2000 campaign for a U.S. House seat). For the blustering Republican chairman, the prospect of McGavick having a clear shot at Cantwell, without first being bloodied in an ideologically divisive primary campaign, might be almost as pleasing.

But, as I wrote recently in an article for Washington Law & Politics magazine, the 46-year-old Cantwell is a brainy, determined, and driven campaigner. She has elevated her public profile significantly over the last few years by squaring off against the Bush administration on issues ranging from energy rate hikes to defending Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) from oil drillers, protecting privacy rights, and preserving Social Security (“the best anti-poverty program this country has ever put in place”) from Bush’s efforts to privatize the system. Hardly “just another liberal, cookie-cutter Democrat,” despite what Vance propagandizes to the media, Cantwell has established her ideological independence on a variety of fronts, which could prove crucial in attracting the rapidly growing number of swing voters among her constituents. University of Washington political science professor David Olson expects Cantwell to do well in the upcoming race, a forecast he bases in part on 2006 being a mid-term election year (“the president’s party”--in this case, the Republicans--“usually loses seats [in such elections], and that’s especially true for second-term presidents”), and partly on Cantwell’s gender. “If we’ve learned anything over the last 15 years,” he concludes, “it’s that women hold an electoral advantage in Washington.”

This Senate race may all come down to fund-raising, personal fortunes being spent (Cantwell made millions in high-tech; McGavick earned his own nut in bonuses paid for turning Safeco around as a business), face-to-face connections with voters (an area where the novice politician McGavick may find himself at some disadvantage), and the ability of the candidates to spread their respective messages. On top of those factors must be considered current unknowns, all of which could affect balloting: how voters will feel in the fall of 2006 about the war in Iraq, domestic economic conditions, and congressional actions; the continuing severity of Republican scandals and the state of Bush’s poll ratings; and blunders along the campaign trail (of which there are inevitably a few). Oh, and there’s always the choice Washingtonians will have to make between Cantwell the politician and McGavick the big-insurance exec. With today’s escalating costs of insurance, and industry resistance to covering the uninsured, and surveys showing that Capitol Hill dwellers are out of step with the priorities of Lunch Box America, it’s hard to tell which contender suffers the most in terms of professional respect.

Joel Connelly, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s longtime national political columnist, predicts this will be “a refreshing contest.” I’ll keep you posted.

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