Two years ago, Washington state led the nation’s Republican revolution, ousting five sitting Democratic members of Congress.
Now those GOP freshman face re-election themselves with big targets on their backs.
After being blasted by months of advertising by unions and environmental groups, all struggled at the polls Tuesday.
George Nethercutt, 1994’s giant killer for knocking off House Speaker Tom Foley, found himself with 50 percent of the vote after all precincts reported.
Democrat Judy Olson of Garfield got 25 percent of the vote to easily beat two Spokane rivals. There are two ways to look at those results: Twice as many voters cast ballots for Nethercutt as Olson; or one out of two voters picked someone besides Nethercutt.
Other Republican freshmen around the state face similar tallies.
Reps. Rick White of Bainbridge Island and Randy Tate of Puyallup each had slightly less than 50 percent of the vote - totals that send up warning flags to their party’s leaders and serve as come-ons to the opposition.
Rep. Linda Smith of Vancouver - a candidate so popular she won the 1994 primary with a three-week write-in campaign, then swamped three-term incumbent Jolene Unsoeld in the general - was a single percentage point above the halfway mark.
Rep. Jack Metcalf of Marysville had 52 percent against a crowded Democratic field and Rep. Doc Hastings of Pasco had the most of any GOP freshman, 54 percent.
So frantic was speculation about a possible reversal of GOP fortunes that Sen. Slade Gorton, the dean of the state’s Republican delegation, quickly issued a statement suggesting things are better than they appear.
The freshmen were “faring phenomenally better than their Democratic counterparts fared after the 1994 primary,” Gorton said. Two years ago, Foley “pulled a miserable 35 percent.”
The Republicans’ fortunes were bound to improve when the absentee ballots are counted in the coming days, Gorton predicted.
Gorton is correct that absentee ballots historically tend to favor Republicans. But a simple look at the numbers ignores a newer lesson of history from the state’s last primary campaigns, particularly in Eastern Washington’s 5th District.
Democrats and their allies clearly have learned that lesson: Hit early, hit often, hit on television.
Before the 1994 primary, Foley was hammered by a series of television commercials. One group denounced him for supporting President Clinton’s unsuccessful plan to overhaul the nation’s health care system; another blasted his support for a resolution that called for letting Washington, D.C., become a state.
This year, Nethercutt felt the fire of these nominally independent expenditures. The AFL-CIO sponsored ads criticizing his votes on an unsuccessful Republican plan to overhaul Medicare.
Washington Citizen Action, an umbrella group representing environmental and welfare-rights groups, also bought ads criticizing his vote on environmental issues.
The commercials are listed as independent under federal law because they are produced and paid for without consulting with a candidate’s campaign. The union ads are also “informational” instead of “political” because they don’t say to vote for or against anyone.
Nethercutt repeatedly points out the unions are supporting Olson. In 1994, Countdown to a Majority and its chairman, Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, sponsored the health care ad and backed Nethercutt.
The Nethercutt campaign apparently learned two lessons from 1994. One is to fight back when attacked. Foley said little about the televised attacks on him, other than to speculate that voters who had backed him for three decades would consider it strange that outside interests were trying to tell them how to vote.
The other lesson is to expect an even bigger onslaught after the primary.
When Nethercutt finished just 7,000 votes behind Foley in the 1994 primary, money poured into the district for other independent campaigns. The National Rifle Association, angered that Foley had voted in favor of a ban on semiautomatic military-style weapons, launched a $50,000 campaign. A group supporting term limits, which Foley had challenged successfully in federal court, spent $300,000.
Nethercutt and the Republican Party political organization launched a counter-offensive against the unions several months ago.
Earlier this week, the Spokane freshman was asking his supporters to dig deeper into their pockets to help him pay for more commercials in the campaign’s equivalent to an arms race.