Dino Rossi settles into a chair in the National Review boardroom with ease. His blazer is sharp, his collar loose, his hair flecked with gray. With his crinkly eyes and ready smile, he has the air of a successful real-estate broker, which he is. It’s also clear that this kind of forum — a chat with reporters — is old hat for the former Washington state senator.
Back in the arena as the leading GOP contender to topple Sen. Patty Murray, a three-term Democratic incumbent, Rossi, 50, tells us that he never expected to be back on the trail so soon. Though for years one of the Evergreen State’s leading Republicans, twice winning the party nod for governor, Rossi reminds us that he has had a rough-and-tumble political career in his beloved, albeit blue, home state.
Both of Rossi’s gubernatorial campaigns fell short. Amid numerous claims of voter fraud and a subsequent court challenge, Rossi lost his 2004 effort by a mere 129 votes. Four years later, in the year of Obama, he was defeated again, this time by six percentage points. “I ran eight points ahead of President Bush in 2004 to be certified the winner twice,” he sighs. “I ran eleven points ahead of Senator McCain in 2008 and did not win.”
Thinking that he had had enough of politics for awhile, Rossi left the stage in early 2009, “unplugged,” and returned to his wife, his four children, and his commercial-real-estate business. His political winter was brief: As voter anger over the Democrats’ agenda grew over the past year, national and state Republicans urged Rossi to step in and challenge Murray, who is best known as a quiet senator, a “mom in tennis shoes” who won a Senate seat in 1992, the so-called “year of women.”
Rossi hedged for months, finally jumping into the race in late May — two weeks before the filing deadline. “I don’t need this job,” he says. “I realized that I wanted to do this job.” His decision, he says, “came down to asking where I can best serve at this point in time. . . . When they passed that health-care bill, I knew that they were out of control.” As he puts it, “I threw myself into this, in front of this train, and it is probably the right spot to be.” His come-lately candidacy has surged: Polls show Rossi in a dead heat with Murray. Rasmussen’s latest has Rossi up 48 percent to 45 percent.
“Our country is in trouble, flat-out trouble,” Rossi says, his voice rising. Think about it, he says. “When our bankers, the Chinese — who, last time I checked, were Communist — when they’re telling us that we’re spending too much money, that’s kind of a clue that we’re in trouble. It’s clear that we’re at a crossroads and that we need to restore our ideals and our free-enterprise system or else we could become France, or worse, Greece.”
Before Rossi can take on Murray directly, he’ll first have to finish strong in Washington’s August primary of sorts. “We don’t register by party in our state,” Rossi explains. “We don’t have a Republican or Democratic primary. Come August, everyone will be on the ballot, and the top two vote-getters will advance. It’s a very independent operation.” Voters do not have to declare their party or vote for only one party’s slate of candidates.
There are a few obstacles along Rossi’s path to a spot on the November ballot. A handful of fellow Republicans stand in his way, including Clint Didier, a tea-party favorite and former football star whose campaign has been boosted by endorsements from Sarah Palin and Rep. Ron Paul. In other states this cycle, tea-party insurgents like Didier have presented a real challenge to established Republicans like Rossi. However, thanks to the state’s top-two primary, in which name identification is crucial, Didier, along with twelve other candidates, is finding it difficult to break into the top tier alongside Rossi and Murray. A recent SurveyUSA poll, for example, found Rossi with support from 33 percent of respondents, with Didier floundering at 5 percent. Still, even Didier edges the Democratic incumbent in a head-to-head match-up, according to Rasmussen.
Crossing his fingers about August and looking toward November, Rossi reckons that Murray has “got real issues,” ones that he believes could rattle the low-key incumbent who has won reelection twice with over 55 percent of the vote. “She’s so under the radar at home,” Rossi says. “Most people have no idea that she is number four in leadership [in the Democratic caucus]. Most people don’t know that she’s been there for 18 years. They can’t name one thing that she’s done, like, for example, that she is ranked third when it comes to giving out earmarks, or that she is a budget writer. She’s mostly known as someone who shows up at press conferences to dispense pork.”
To beat Murray — who, he adds, is “not to be underestimated” — Rossi wants to reach out to independents and self-described “Dino-crats” by “drawing lines in the sand” on key issues such as reforming the budget process and tackling the national debt. It’s a tack that could pay off: According to a SurveyUSA poll released this week, Murray is vulnerable with independents, who by a 50-to-43 margin disapprove of her job performance. “She considers [earmarks] her strength,” Rossi laughs. “I see them as her weakness.”
Tangling with Murray over earmarks, however, is not Rossi’s central goal. Encouraging economic growth, especially by small businesses, would be his chief aim in the upper chamber. “The reality is that we have to have entrepreneurs in America, we have to have people striving,” he says. “I worked my way through Seattle University as a janitor, waxing floors at the Space Needle. I come from a world of no salary, no benefits, and if you don’t work, you don’t eat. Only through my good fortune in commercial real estate am I able to consider public service. To me, that pursuit — that American dream — is the part many people sense is slipping away.”
On the fundraising front, Rossi faces an uphill climb. Murray’s campaign has raised over $11 million this cycle and has over $6 million on hand, thanks to heavy support from national unions and the White House — Vice President Joe Biden is a prominent backer. “We probably need about $8 to $10 million to tell our story,” Rossi says. So far, he has hauled in $1.4 million in his first six weeks. That’s quite a sum for a newly opened war chest, but nothing new for Rossi: In his 2008 gubernatorial run, he was able to rake in nearly $12 million.
While Rossi hustles to infuse his campaign shop with cash, national Republicans are already doing what they can to boost his coffers. GOP senators like Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma have attended a Rossi fundraiser. The American Action Network, a conservative political-action group, has launched a $750,000 media blitz against Murray entitled “Make Murray Worry.” To make its point, the AAN ad features a woman in tennis shoes (hint, hint) walking on the backs of businessmen and children. To similar effect, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has also started to build its beat-Murray apparatus, setting up a website called “Muddy Tennis Shoes,” which calls out Murray for her “smear” tactics.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for its part, is already slamming Rossi in press releases daily. With a smile Rossi assures us that he is more than prepared for the onslaught from national Democratic operatives. “[Murray] will do the old ‘sleazy businessman’ routine with me, but remember, I’ve been through the wash twice,” he says. “My previous campaigns have helped get me nearly universal name-identification in the state. I feel like I’ve shaken everyone’s hand at least once, and marched in all of the parades.”
His past campaign defeats, he adds, don’t haunt him. “I lost when I first ran for the state senate in 1992,” Rossi recalls. “It was close — I lost by a 1,051-vote margin. You learn a lot more when you lose. When you win, you think you did everything right. Losing makes you ask yourself a lot of questions. So after that first loss, I came back four years later and defeated the incumbent who had previously beaten me. And I became the only state Republican challenger in 1996 to defeat a Democratic incumbent.”
Looking ahead to the August contest and beyond, Rossi tells us that he is “absolutely” confident that he can win the seat. That’s good news for Republicans, who need a net win of ten seats to take back the Senate. “I fought headwinds during the previous two campaigns,” he says. “This is the first time that I haven’t run in a presidential-election year. This time around, I do not have to carry other people’s baggage.”
On his own, Rossi hopes that the third run’s the charm.
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.