Despite the profound effect that its outcome could have on the balance of power in Congress next year, the Washington Senate race has so far been one of the least entertaining of the cycle. No “Aqua Buddha” ads or youthful dabblings in witchcraft. No mob bankers or embellished military records. No gratuitous kicks to the groin. And not one mention of colonoscopies in either of the two debates. Nope, to the dismay of many national media outlets, the race has mostly centered on policy and governing philosophy.
The Patty Murray–Dino Rossi matchup is in many ways an archetype of the 2010 midterms: Murray, the entrenched incumbent, versus Rossi, the outsider promising to change Washington’s course. But while many of her fellow Democrats have wavered, Murray has defended the president’s agenda at every turn. During the first debate, Murray said “not only did I read” the health-care-reform bill, “but I helped write it.” On spending, she insists the stimulus was necessary to save jobs, and perhaps most notably, she has been steadfast in her defense of earmarks, or “investments” as she likes to call them.
According to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, Murray secured the ninth-highest dollar amount in earmarks among senators — $220 million for nearly 200 individual projects in the 2010 budget. As chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, she has direct influence over an annual budget of nearly $70 billion, and is not afraid to wield it.
While the ability to bring home federal funds has long been a source of pride for members of Congress, in 2010 it has seemed more like a liability. Given the political climate, you might expect her to downplay a reputation that has earned her nicknames such as “Pork Patty” and “Queen of Pork.” Instead, she has embraced her pork-barrel prowess and is actively touting it on the campaign trail.
“I am proud to work hard in every community in this state to ask them what their needs are, and then go to fight within the budget process that we have to make sure the resources are here in Washington State,” Murray said at a June press conference in Olympia. (She was there to promote a $1 million earmark she obtained to help rebuild a city park).
Murray echoed this sentiment in both debates. She repeatedly made clear what she viewed to be her primary duty as senator — talking to community leaders in the state, then returning to Capitol Hill to secure the “investments” they request. “I will not apologize for that,” she said.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, says that as someone who is “pretty unabashed” in her pursuit of earmarks, Murray has no alternative but to stick to her guns. “You couldn’t run from [her] record,” Ellis said. “I don’t think she had a choice but to double down and hope that voters go along with it.”
Rossi, who promises to ban earmarks until the budget is balanced, has sought to portray Murray’s earmark spending as “the perfect example of how [she] has changed over the past 18 years.” During Sunday night’s debate, he referenced a speech Murray gave in 1994, in which she said: “I wasn’t elected to bring home the bacon — I was elected to cut the budget.” But bring home the bacon she has, and Rossi is hoping voters concerned with out-of-control spending in the other Washington will connect the dots. There is certainly no shortage of damning evidence.
For instance, in the fall of 2005, Murray took to the Senate floor to defend federal earmarks; at the time, Congress was debating the notorious “Bridge to Nowhere,” the $230 million project of the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R., Alaska). “As the old saying goes, ‘What is good for the goose is good for the gander.’” Murray said. “And I tell my colleagues, if we start cutting funding for individual projects, your project may be next.”
She once entered language into a 2002 spending bill that forced the Navy to pay $4.5 million for an 85-foot speedboat it didn’t want. The Navy ended up giving the boat to the University of Washington, which couldn’t find a use for it either. Top executives at Guardian Marine International, the company that built the boat, later gave $15,000 to Murray’s campaign.
Earlier this month, the Seattle Times reported that at least 17 of Murray’s former staff members have gone on to work at lobbying firms. The clients of those former staffers are expected to benefit from nearly $20 million in earmarks Murray requested for the 2011 defense-spending bill. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Murray is the second-highest recipient of campaign contributions from lobbyists. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, she has received more than $660,000 in lobbyist money since 2005.
The list goes on. But whether the “Queen of Pork” label will stick (at least in the negative sense) is another question.
Americans are somewhat divided on the issue of pork-barrel spending. An October 15 Rasmussen survey found that 60 percent of likely voters prefer a candidate who would cut federal spending to one who would work to secure earmarks for their state or district — 84 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of independents. However, 56 percent of Democrats favored candidates who bring home the bacon.
That’s good news for Murray in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican governor or presidential candidates in almost 30 years. “It’s such a deep-blue state, and the recession, unemployment hasn’t hit us as hard as the rest of the country,” says a source familiar with Washington State politics. “Their liberalism hasn’t come back to bite them as much.”
Matt A. Barreto, professor of political science at the University of Washington and director of the Washington Poll, said Murray has done a good job spinning the issue in her favor by highlighting specific state projects she helped fund. “It’s always the case that people are against earmarks in the 49 states that are not their own,” Barreto said.
Polling in the race is difficult to judge. The RealClearPolitics average has Murray leading by several points, but because most voting in the state is done by mail, it is fairly difficult to determine who exactly constitutes a “likely voter.” A recent GOP survey found that 50 percent of “most likely” voters preferred Rossi, compared to 45 percent for Murray.
Both parties, as well as outside interest groups, are pouring resources into the state, as the seat appears increasingly vital to Republican hopes of a Senate majority in 2011. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has pledged $4 million in support of Rossi. Democrats, meanwhile, have reserved $2 million in air time and are rolling out their biggest names — Clinton, Biden, the Obamas — on Murray’s behalf, an indication to some that Democrats are nervous. “If Murray were safe, they wouldn’t be here,” the state source said. “This race is closer than people think.”
For Republicans, who already seem poised to win the seat of “Earmarker-in-Chief” David Obey (D., Wis.), the outgoing chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, knocking off the “Queen of Pork” would be an important victory.
— Andrew Stiles writes for National Review Online’s Battle ’10 blog.