November 7, 1996 in City

Screaming For Moderation State’s Congressional Delegation Split 5-4

By The Spokesman-Review

Washington state is turning into the nation’s bellwether for congressional politics, swinging left in 1992, right in 1994, and wobbling back to the middle this year.

Call it the revenge of the radical moderates.

The state’s voters - awash in months of negative commercials by unions, business groups, Democratic and Republican party organizations - seemed to reject generic national campaigns Tuesday and focus in the end on the individual candidates.

“It was the great revolution that wasn’t,” said Cathy Allen of Campaign Connections, which often represents Democratic candidates and liberal causes. “Voters were not so much running left or right or any place in particular. They were taking roads that are the least volatile, extreme or costly, and trying to muddle through.”

In the end, voters chose a U.S. House delegation that will be divided as equally as a nine-person group can be, 5-4. The only question is whether the Republicans or Democrats will come up on the short end.

“We sort of magnified the national trends in ‘92 and ‘94,” said Brett Bader, a political consultant for The Madison Group, which works for Republican candidates and conservative causes. “This was the white-hot center of the battle for control for the House this year - Ground Zero.”

Republican Reps. George Nethercutt of Spokane and Doc Hastings of Richland were sent back to Congress for another term, along with Rick White of Bainbridge Island and Jennifer Dunn of Bellevue.

State Sen. Adam Smith of Kent defeated Republican freshman Randy Tate, and Brian Baird, a college psychology professor, beat Republican Linda Smith of Vancouver. The winners will join Democratic Reps. Norm Dicks of Bremerton and Jim McDermott of Seattle.

Republican Rep. Jack Metcalf of Langley trails Democratic state Sen. Kevin Quigley of Lake Stevens by about 2,300 votes in a race that will be decided in the absentee balloting.

National control of the U.S. House is not in doubt, but the final totals are. Republicans hold 223 seats, Democrats 204 seats and Independents two seats with six races still undecided. If the current trends in those races continue, Republicans will lose a total of 10 seats.

Washington voters lurched toward moderation for both national and state offices. Democrats Gary Locke and Bill Clinton won the races at the top of the ticket, but both face legislative bodies controlled by Republicans.

“It was as if voters were saying ‘We like you well enough to give you the job; we don’t like you well enough to give you control,”’ Bader said.

As he wound down from a solid month of campaigning Wednesday, Nethercutt said he thought the nation could make progress on many of its most pressing issues during two more years of divided government.

“What the future holds is more of what we saw in the last six months,” he said, noting GOP victories on such issues as changes to the welfare system and immigration laws.

While Clinton was forced to compromise, Republicans also learned the political consequences of shutting down the federal government, Nethercutt said. That’s not likely to happen again.

“All of us are going to have to deal with Medicare,” he added. The nation’s health care system for senior citizens was hotly debated this fall, with Clinton and the Democrats referring to a GOP proposal to slow the program’s growth rate as a cut.

Both sides agree that growth rate must be cut to keep the system solvent. “It will be interesting to see how he finesses that,” Nethercutt said.

The Medicare debate was the most prominent part of the generic national campaigns that flooded Washington voters’ televisions and filled their mailboxes with slick multi-colored brochures.

Ad campaigns like the one waged by the AFL-CIO against Nethercutt and several other Republican freshmen in Washington were designed to “soften up” the incumbents, Allen said. The ads made voters aware of those issues, but they didn’t necessarily secure a vote.

“(Opponents) had to be ready to give voters accountability and substance” on what they would do differently, she said. “Your opponent couldn’t just be fired. You had to be hired.”

The independent expenditures by the labor unions probably played a major role in helping Adam Smith beat Tate. But White survived a similar attack, while Linda Smith was never targeted by labor but still apparently lost to novice Baird.

Perhaps the clearest sign that the state’s voters have moved toward the middle in congressional politics was found not in the outcome of individual races, but in the defeat of Initiative 671 on term limits.

Three years ago, voters easily passed a term limits initiative, and the legal challenge of that unconstitutional law probably contributed to the defeat of House Speaker Tom Foley.

On Tuesday, the state’s voters rejected a proposal that took term limits a step farther. It’s possible, said Allen, that they remembered the last two elections and how easy it was to unseat incumbents, even without term limits.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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