November 6, 1996 in Nation/World

Nethercutt Wins A Convincing Victory Says His Success Is A Win For Campaign With A ‘Positive Message’

By The Spokesman-Review

Eastern Washington voters sent George Nethercutt back to Congress for another two years, giving the freshman Republican an easy victory over Garfield farmer Judy Olson.

Nethercutt, targeted by labor unions and environmental groups for his votes supporting the Republican agenda, declared it a victory for a campaign with “a positive message.”

“The deception of the ads were not effective,” said Nethercutt, standing Tuesday night in a packed suite in the Red Lion City Center Hotel.

“It says volumes, too, about the support for a more efficient federal government.”

Olson conceded at midnight, calling Nethercutt and wishing him well.

“It was a good race,” she said. “When you’re a challenger and you have almost no name recognition at the start, it’s tough. But that’s what the word challenger means.”

Nethercutt was one of six Republicans that Washington state voters sent to the House in 1994, but could be one of only three to return for a second term. Early returns had Reps. Jack Metcalf of Langley, Linda Smith of Vancouver and Randy Tate of Puyallup trailing their Democratic opponents.

If those trends hold, it would make Washington a weathervane for congressional politics for three straight elections. Voters signaled the Democratic surge in their 1992 choices, led the Republican tidal wave in 1994, and moved toward a more evenly divided House in 1996.

The Eastern Washington race matched Nethercutt, a 52-year-old lawyer and former Spokane County Republican chairman, against Olson, a 50-year-old farmer who runs a wheat ranch with her family near Garfield and recently served as president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

They were a study in contrasts. Nethercutt, a tall, amiable lawyer, was given to slipping mentions of his mother’s heart attack or his daughter’s diabetes into discussions about federal programs.

Olson, petite and plain-spoken, introduced herself as a mother and likened the GOP tax cut to giving children candy before they ate their vegetables.

The race was considered by some a referendum on the Republican Congress.

Nethercutt was one of the most prominent members of the GOP class of 1995, the first challenger to beat a sitting House speaker in 134 years.

In the months before the Sept. 17 primary, the AFL-CIO and environmental groups criticized him for voting in lockstep with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, accusing him of trying to cut Medicare and spending on education.

The tactic was used all over the nation, with “cookie cutter” ads that denounced votes on particular bills and inserted the face of the local Republican freshman targeted by the groups.

Republicans countered with generic ads of their own, blasting “big labor bosses” and showing cigar-smoking cronies passing large stacks of money around a backroom table. Although Olson received tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from union political committees, the AFL-CIO ads never mentioned her by name. The unions spent most of their Spokane commercial time in October blasting Rep. Helen Chenoweth in neighboring Idaho.

The candidates took up the themes of the ads. Olson repeatedly accused Nethercutt of trying to cut Medicare and education, and he rarely spoke at a rally or a debate without denouncing big labor bosses.

When Olson criticized him for voting with Gingrich 95 percent of the time, he replied he was voting for things in the “Contract with America,” his 1994 mantra. If Olson wants to run against Gingrich, he added, she should move to Georgia.

But he left the attack ads to Republican organizations and a business group led by the U.S. Chambers of Commerce. He closed out the race with an ad featuring him trying to coax his dog to hold still for a 30-second commercial.

The truth of the campaign’s most contentious issue, Medicare, was far more complicated than either candidate cared to explain in 30-second commercials or 60-second debate answers.

While Olson had ample criticism of Nethercutt’s votes, her campaign faltered over what she would do differently on such complicated problems as Medicare. She repeatedly said she did not have all the answers, but would push for a bipartisan congressional group to study the problem and propose a solution on which both sides could agree.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos

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