Republican George Nethercutt probably will get the most votes in Tuesday’s primary but faces a tough re-election battle in November, a new voter survey suggests.
The freshman congressman easily tops the four-person primary field, while farmer Judy Olson has a commanding lead in the Democratic primary, according to a new scientific survey conducted for The Spokesman-Review and KHQ-TV.
But the three Democrats combined have as much support as Nethercutt among likely voters contacted between last Thursday and Monday.
“He’s going to have a dogfight in November,” said Del Ali, an analyst for Political/ Media Research Inc. which conducted the poll.
Voters in Tuesday’s primary will get a single ballot with all four names and can pick one.
Two years ago, a crowded Republican primary held 30-year incumbent Tom Foley to less than 40 percent of the primary vote. That drew national attention - and money - to Nethercutt’s campaign.
With about one voter in four undecided a week before the primary, candidates who can afford it are likely to mount a television blitz, Ali said.
Nethercutt is far better known than any of his Democratic opponents, the survey revealed. Almost all voters surveyed said they recognized his name, while one in three didn’t recognize Olson and nearly half didn’t recognize Spokane candidates Sue Kaun and Don McCloskey.
But Nethercutt’s recognition comes with a price. About one voter in four had an unfavorable opinion of him; 42 percent had a favorable opinion and 29 percent were neutral.
That ratio is much better for Nethercutt than some other Republican freshmen - Idaho voters in a parallel survey were about evenly divided on whether they had favorable or unfavorable opinions of Rep. Helen Chenoweth - but it remains a cause for concern, Ali said.
Nethercutt isn’t as controversial as Chenoweth or House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but is part of the large class of GOP freshmen targeted by Democrats.
“He’s being tarred by association,” Ali said.
Nethercutt wasn’t surprised by the poll results.
“They’re about what I would expect,” he said. “It was a close race last time. It’s going to be a close race this time.”
He believes some voters have an unfavorable opinion of him because of a series of television commercials criticizing his votes on Medicare reform that call the Republican plan a cut.
Nethercutt has responded with his own commercials which defend the proposal as a way to save Medicare by slowing its rate of growth.
“I didn’t know what to expect from the unfavorable (ratings) but I knew they’d be up,” he said. “From that standpoint, I feel good about where I am.”
Olson said she, too, was pleased with the results.
“I think it’s an indication that my message of representing middleclass families is getting out to voters,” she said.
Television commercials might be boosting Olson to the top of the Democratic field, Ali said. She is the only one of the Democrats with an extensive television ad campaign.
“Television is how you reach voters in this large district,” she said.
It is probably the only way for any candidate to capture a significant block of the undecided voters, Ali said.
Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District is larger than some states, stretching from the Canadian border to Oregon, and from Idaho to the Columbia basin.
Kaun could not be reached Wednesday for a comment about the survey, but McCloskey was philosophical about the results: “That’s the way it goes.”
Without the money for television commercials, McCloskey said he planned to “do what we can” to win votes in the final week before the Sept. 17 primary. He’ll put up some signs, appear on television interviews and talk radio, and break out some paint to convert the wall above the northwest corner of the Monroe Street Bridge into a giant campaign sign.
“I’m not going to quit. We’re going to keep on keeping on.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Tough fight in the 5th District
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: POLITICS ON-LINE More information about candidates and the campaigns can be found on Virtually Northwest, The Spokesman-Review’s Web site. Go to http://virtuallyNW.com, then click on Campaign 96 for a directory of primary election stories that have appeared in the newspaper in the last month.