By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 11:24 AM
SEATTLE - Drama has snowballed at the end of an otherwise rote, civil Senate race in Washington, which could be the state that delivers a Republican majority to the upper chamber.
Republican real estate businessman Dino Rossi, who narrowly lost bids for governor in 2004 and 2008 and was recruited by GOP leadership to run this year, is nipping at the heels of Democratic incumbent Patty Murray, a powerful earmarker since she won election in 1992 after branding herself as a "mom in tennis shoes."
Even if Republicans win Senate seats in safer states (such as North Dakota and Indiana) and in most toss-up states (such as Nevada and Illinois), it will be nearly impossible to claim a majority without Washington. Over the course last month, Murray's lead shrank from eight points to four, nearly within the margin of error of the latest Washington Poll, released Friday by the University of Washington.
The Rossi camp was so confident that it held a victory rally Monday - the day before mail-in ballots must be postmarked. Murray blitzed the state via bus over the weekend, with Spokane, Walla Walla and Olympia on a 12-town tear that ended with a concert Monday evening in Seattle.
Campaign ads have clogged TV and radio as millions of dollars of independent expenditures have poured into the state. American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, a political action committee and nonprofit group co-founded by Karl Rove, have spent $2.6 million in advertising against Murray, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In the past month, President Obama, Michelle Obama, Vice President Biden and former president Bill Clinton for Murray. The Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets.org Web site reports that Murray had raised $15.3 million and Rossi $7.6 million as of Oct. 13.
Rossi's Monday night party took place in the garage of campaign headquarters in Bellevue, an affluent, somewhat conservative suburb across Lake Washington from Seattle. Yes, there was exposed ductwork and drooping reams of insulation, but there was also a giant American flag, an excitable trio of women wearing "Rossi Posse" T-shirts, and a 91-year-old man from Issaquah wielding a brass bugle and a disdain for federal handouts.
"I remember in 1932 sitting at the breakfast table and my dad ranting about moving to Australia because FDR had just been elected," said Jack Steidl, a retired airline pilot who bugles for state honor guards and wore a Rossi button pinned to his black felt fedora. "He believed it was up to the individual to work hard and not spend his life collecting doles from the government. I guess I inherited that thinking, and Dino Rossi is the one to keep it up."
The front of the Rossi Posse's red T-shirts said "Re-Elect Dino Rossi," in reference to his controversial 129-vote loss in the 2004 gubernatorial race.
"As big government takes over, our voices become smaller," said Rossi Posse member and Tacoma resident Shelly Garofalo, 47, whose year-long unemployment prompted her to stump for a candidate who promised more jobs and less deficit. "Liberalism leads to socialism and socialism leads to communism."
"I think the last Republican-controlled Congress was out of control with spending, and what we have now is that on steroids," the candidate said after the rally, as the Rossi Posse circled and chirped, and MGMT's song "Time to Pretend" played over speakers.
Leave it to Seattle to attempt to pump up its Democratic base with the plaintive, numbing licks of Elliot Smith. A disco ball spun lazily in the purply, blacklit rafters of a concert venue called Neumo's in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood Monday night. Murray supporters mingled below to a soundtrack of indie rock and folk music.
"Dino Rossi couldn't be here tonight," announced King County executive Dow Constantine from the stage. "He's having a victory party in Bellevue. I'm glad he's having it tonight because he's not going to have the opportunity tomorrow."
Upstairs near the bar sat three friends who typify a certain kind of progressive Seattle voter: engaged in social welfare projects, moderately trustful of government, not afraid to tax themselves for the common good. They say Murray's smart and effective, that she's gathered a stockpile of influence that benefits a spectrum of the state -- from veterans and the poor to tentpole businesses like Boeing and Microsoft.
They're anxious, though, about the tight race, about the millions of dollars funding what they view as scurrilous, anonymous campaign ads, and about the obsession over party control of Congress.
"The jockeying of party politics-you can't look at the greater good if you're focusing on the balance of power," said Kelsey Beck, 33, who works for a hunger relief organization and is generally proud of what the White House and the Democrats have achieved in two years. "I wanted more to happen, but right out of the gate we passed legislation on pay equity. And health-care reform, while not everything we wanted it to be, was major."
"I look at government like a big aircraft carrier," said social worker Lindsey Parrish, 33. "It takes time when it changes direction."
"People have a short attention span in politics," said Joe Gruber, 38, who works for a non-profit food bank. "You expect to have overnight solutions to systemic problems. I think business will continue to get done in D.C. regardless of the shakeup. It may not be the business that I want, but we'll still have a sitting Democratic president."
Murray took the stage around 8:30 p.m., having made no wardrobe changes since earlier in the afternoon when she rallied aerospace machinists in Everett: still the navy sweater and twinkly single-strand necklace, still the light-blue mom jeans and the white running shoes. She preached to the choir, railing against the excesses of the Bush administration and vowing to put Main Street before Wall Street.
"If young people don't vote tomorrow, guess who votes?" Murray told the crowd. "Old people. And they will send us back to the past."
There might be two Americas, as former senator John Edwards of North Carolina (D) used to say, but there are three Washingtons: the Puget Sound region (which, with Seattle, contains 54 percent of all state voters and is the province of wealthy, educated progressives); the sparsely populated Idahoan expanse east of the Cascades (the rural territory of working-class conservatives); and a patchwork of swingier towns such as Bellingham in the north and Seattle outerburbs Everett and Tacoma - home to Boeing (one of the state's largest employers) and a joint Army-Air Force base, respectively.
The scrubby, pastoral hills east of the Cascades are fertile ground for a hybrid strain of independence: Wind turbines poke up from ridges along interstate 90, and signs shouting "ABSOLUTELY NO NEW TAXES" hang from barns brimming with bales of hay. Judging by campaign signs alone, this is Rossi country. One other thing is apparent in this valley town of 83,000, which calls itself "the Palm Springs of Washington" and lies 140 miles southeast of Seattle: Some residents are eager for the campaign to be over.
Robocalls from the Murray and Rossi campaigns lit up the phone every night at the home of Caleb Gibson, a business major at Yakima Valley Community College. Early Monday morning he waited in a classroom building on campus for his math class to begin.
"I'm tired of Dino Rossi and Patty Murray bashing on each other," said Gibson, 19. The campaign "is kind of drawn out. ... I think Dino Rossi should win. We should be saving more than spending."
"I voted for Rossi-I like his politics better, and Patty Murray has been badmouthing him," said Christian Berghoff, 21, an English major talking with friends near the clock tower in the center of campus. "People are fed up with all this election stuff."
Students, he said, don't really pay attention to national politics but are interested in the state initiatives on the ballot, like 1098 (which would establish a state income tax) and 1100 (which would privatize liquor sales and deregulate the industry).
The town's 16th Avenue is lined with churches, quaint two-bedroom homes, maple trees whose leaves have gone golden, and espresso shacks and other small businesses. One business owner who declined to give his last name--because "it's a small town"-said his property taxes have ballooned 400 percent in eight years.
"We need Rossi," the business owner said. Murray is "just too tax-crazy."
"I think it's just time for change, and I went for Dino Rossi," said a 24-year-old employee of one of the espresso shacks, who -- like other Yakimans it seems -- prefers to keep her name to herself. "But most of the state's voters are on the other side of the mountains, so we'll just have to wait and see."