Rossi's Strategy is Key in Cliff-Hanger Governor's Race

 

When a little-known Republican real-estate investor and citizen-legislator named Dino Rossi announced a little more than a year ago that he was running for governor of dark-blue Washington state, few gave him much of a shot.

But when the state's counties certified their election results late on Nov. 17, Rossi, 45, led the state's three-term attorney general, Democrat Christine Gregoire, 57, by the slimmest of margins: 261 votes out of more than 2.8 million cast.

That triggered an automatic statewide recount, which is expected to be concluded by Thanksgiving, though neither campaign would rule out requesting additional recounts.

This state of affairs would have struck most pollsters and pundits as unthinkable last summer, when two-term Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat and Gregoire ally, announced he wouldn't seek re-election. That seemed to pave the way for Gregoire, a Democratic Party star who had resisted previous entreaties to run for higher office, to waltz into the governor's mansion in Olympia.

She declared her candidacy hours after Locke's announcement and was immediately anointed the front-runner. She was a Democratic woman who supported abortion rights in a state that has among the highest percentage of female elected officials and that hadn't elected a Republican governor in 24 years or a statewide candidate who opposed abortion rights in even longer. Plus, state Democrats were particularly motivated by contentious races for president and U.S. Senate, both of which ended in the Democrats' column by healthy margins.

Having won three statewide elections as attorney general, Gregoire had a well-oiled fund-raising network, high statewide name recognition and a record of high-profile victories, most notably leading the $206 billion settlement of a 46-state lawsuit against Big Tobacco that yielded $4.5 billion for the state.

Rossi had none of those things. Little-known outside of Olympia and the suburban Seattle legislative district he represented for seven years, he wasn't even the first choice of party leaders. His biggest political achievement, negotiating a no-new-taxes state budget in 2003 that bridged a nearly $3 billion budget shortfall, seemed ill-suited to campaign commercials.

Although even both candidates' most ardent supporters are hesitant to predict who'll emerge from the recount ahead, Rossi's campaign has given state Republicans a blueprint for future statewide efforts. Here's how such a strategy might look.

  • Pick a candidate and clear the field: Republicans wanted to avoid what happened in 1996, the last time there was an open race for governor. A former state senator backed by religious conservatives won a contentious seven-candidate Republican primary with just 15 percent of the vote and got crushed by Locke. So state Republican leaders set out to recruit candidates for governor and U.S. Senate who could appeal to independents and moderate Democrats in the vote-rich western Washington suburbs. Spurned by a popular county sheriff and two tech moguls, they turned to Rossi, a telegenic self-made millionaire, for governor. And to challenge U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Seattle, they wooed George Nethercutt (R), the affable eastern Washington congressman from Spokane who in 1994 shocked the political establishment by unseating U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley. With only token opposition in the primary, Rossi and Nethercutt, who was defeated, had plenty of time to lay foundations for their campaigns. Gregoire, meanwhile, faced a sometimes-contentious primary, which aides say hurt her ability to define herself and her message.

  • Avoid being labeled a right-wing wacko: Rossi bobbed and weaved when asked about his stances on abortion and other wedge social issues, such as same-sex marriage and stem cell research. "He defined himself as (a moderate), and I think that many people believed him," said state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt. He blamed Democrats for not being as aggressive in their efforts to define Rossi as they were toward Nethercutt, who faced ads citing his opposition to abortion and certain types of stem cell research as proof that he was "just too extreme for Washington."

  •  Attack your opponent's strengths: Gregoire's campaign touted her accomplishments in 12 years as attorney general, most notably her work on the tobacco settlement. But Rossi went right after her resume in a slick and effective television ad campaign. "My opponent's worked for the state government all of her life. She's part of the status quo. She's one of the reasons why we've had gridlock in Olympia," a smiling Rossi said in one of his first ads. Later ads hammered Gregoire for a high-profile mistake in which her office missed a deadline to appeal a jury verdict that cost state taxpayers more than $18 million after interest. Gregoire also at times tried to embrace the change-agent mantle and, according to exit polls, more voters seeking change sided with Gregoire. But Gregoire's attacks on Rossi, which went after what he admitted was a mischaracterization of his business credentials and his budget proposal's trimming of money for low-income health care, could have been sharper, one of her consultants admitted.

  • Hone a business-based message early and stick to it: Rossi's message was simple and consistent -- Gregoire is part of a broken system that has destroyed the business climate, and my private-sector experience makes me the man to fix it. Faced with questions on education, transportation and other issues, he frustrated reporters by quickly steering his answers back to the business climate, which was also the theme of many of his television ads. His private-sector rhetoric was similar to that used by Montana's Brian Schweitzer, Massachusetts's Mitt Romney, Rhode Island's Donald Carcieri and Virginia's Mark Warner to win governorships in states that lean toward the opposite party.

  • Match your opponent's fund-raising: Rossi raised almost $6 million, nearly keeping pace with Gregoire's $6.2 million. That made the race nearly twice as costly as the previous most expensive race, Locke's 2000 re-election. Rossi's ability to raise money helped attract support from the Republican Governors Association, which spent $1.7 million on television ads attacking Gregoire. Gregoire had an established fund-raising network, both because she'd won three statewide elections and because she was endorsed by EMILY's List.

  •  Play to the wildcard: Rossi went out of his way to call attention to the campaign of the little-noticed Libertarian candidate, Ruth Bennett, who said her goal was to siphon off votes from Gregoire. Bennett, whose campaign centered on legalizing same-sex marriage, said she has nothing against either Gregoire or Rossi but wanted to dispel the notion that her party can draw votes only from Republican candidates. Gregoire has said the state is not ready for same-sex marriage. When Rossi, who opposes same-sex marriage, was asked about the issue, he said he wasn't running on it, but pointed out that Bennett was. Although it's not clear where Bennett's 63,346 votes otherwise would have gone, they were more than enough to sway the election.

  • Get out the vote: Both parties' operatives said this year's efforts to register and motivate voters were unprecedented, largely as a result of the contentious presidential race between President Bush and Democratic candidate John Kerry. Democrats traditionally are thought to have the edge in the so-called "ground game," but Gregoire campaign spokesman Morton Brilliant said that "nationally, there was a very good Republican get-out-the-vote effort and it extended into Washington state." Rossi "has built an enormous statewide machine that didn't exist before: a group of volunteers and supporters that is willing to do the work to turn out those kind of numbers," said Republican consultant Brett Bader.

"Dino's campaign set the standard for how Republicans can be successful in Washington state," Bader said, adding that if Rossi doesn't win - "everyone would want to see him run again. "

Kenneth P. Vogel is a political reporter for The (Tacoma, Wash.) News Tribune.

 
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