Freshman Rep. George Nethercutt has the edge over Democratic challenger Judy Olson in Eastern Washington’s congressional race - in part because voters seem more likely to trust him on one of the campaign’s key issues, preserving Medicare.
A new scientific survey shows Nethercutt, a former Spokane attorney, with the support of half the voters surveyed in the 5th Congressional District.
Olson, a Garfield farmer, has the support of 36 percent of those surveyed between Oct. 24 and 26, while 14 percent said they have not yet decided.
The poll, conducted for The Spokesman-Review and KHQ-TV, has a margin of error of 5 percent.
“He’s in pretty good shape, although undecideds tend to break in favor of the challenger,” said Del Ali, an analyst for Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc., which conducted the poll.
“It still could tighten, but I’d rather be in Nethercutt’s shoes right now.”
Nethercutt said he was “thrilled” with the results and didn’t agree that undecided voters would necessarily side with Olson.
“I think they’re going to look carefully at us in the next week. It may be based on the quality of the ads, who’s positive and who’s negative,” he said.
Olson called the results “about ballpark” and said she has new commercials airing this week in an effort to capture undecided voters.
“The big question is how many people will get out and vote,” she said.
Nethercutt has been the target of months of critical campaign commercials - first by national labor unions and environmental groups, and recently by Olson. But the poll indicates that barrage has not had much effect.
All but 1 percent of the voters contacted said they recognized the congressman’s name, and more than half said they had a favorable opinion of him. A fourth said they had an unfavorable opinion - a nearly identical number to a survey taken in early September.
Ali speculated that Democrats in Eastern Washington have not been successful tying Nethercutt to House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“He’s not seen as one of those abrasive Republican freshmen,” the analyst said of Nethercutt. “I think the strategy is pretty stupid in certain districts, and this is one of them.”
Olson is not quite as well-known as the incumbent, the survey indicates. About 15 percent of the voters didn’t recognize her name, but few people who did know her had a negative opinion of her.
One of her challenges is to introduce herself to those voters through political ads, and convince them to vote for her, Ali said. “I think we’ll do better after this week,” Olson said.
A key criticism of Nethercutt - both in political commercials and by Olson at campaign appearances - has been his vote on an unsuccessful Republican proposal to reform Medicare. The GOP wanted to slow the rate of growth in payments from about 11 percent a year to about 7 percent.
Olson has called the proposal a cut in Medicare, arguing that inflation and the rising number of beneficiaries would have outstripped that lower figure. Nethercutt has responded that it was not a cut because new options for the program would have saved enough money to allow Medicare to survive with a lower growth rate.
Because the proposal was vetoed by President Clinton, the next Congress will have to take another shot at reforming Medicare, which is losing an estimated $22 million a day.
Nethercutt says he would support a program similar to the one that was vetoed. Olson says she does not have a specific proposal to reform Medicare, but wants a bipartisan group from Congress to devise a plan that both sides can support.
When voters in the survey were asked which candidate would do a better job of making the changes needed to keep Medicare viable, the incumbent got the nod: 44 percent chose Nethercutt compared to 30 percent for Olson.
If Olson picks up the vast majority of the undecided voters, the race could hinge on turnout, Ali said. That brings in such unpredictable factors as whether the presidential race is essentially decided in the Eastern Time Zone before the polls close in Washington state. That could discourage supporters of the loser from going to the polls, or make supporters of the winner so overconfident they decide to skip voting, he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Nethercutt in the lead