August 31, 1997 in Nation/World

Nethercutt Considering A Long Shot He’s Still Weighing Run For Senate, But History Has Already Weighed In Heavily Against Him

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The last time an Eastern Washington resident was elected to the U.S. Senate, Babe Ruth was hitting home runs for the Yankees, drinking liquor was against the law, and the stock market crash was nearly a year away.

The last time an Eastern Washington resident won the governorship, salmon still swam up the Columbia River into Canada and Boeing made airplanes out of wood.

As Spokane Republican George Nethercutt ponders a run for the U.S. Senate, candidates and campaign consultants say such bits of history show how hard it is for someone east of the mountains to win statewide.

“Can the right person break through all the barriers? I still have to believe that can be done,” said Sid Morrison, a former congressman from Zillah who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1992. “But it’s daunting.”

Part of the problem is simple demographics in a state where the population has exploded in the Puget Sound area in the last half-century.

“There’s a saying in state politics that all of the voters you’re going to need, you can see from the top of the Columbia Tower” in downtown Seattle, said Jim Kneeland, a political consultant who served as the spokesman for Democrat Booth Gardner’s 1984 campaign.

While Kneeland and others say that’s an oversimplification, the heavily urbanized region between Everett and Olympia creates another problem for East Side candidates.

“If you live in Seattle, half of the population is within a 60-minute drive,” said state GOP Chairman Dale Foreman. “If you live in Spokane or Yakima or the Tri-Cities, you have to constantly be on the road to reach the population center.”

Foreman, a Wenatchee legislator, fell 23,000 votes short of the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1996.

Along with the distance comes a related problem. Voters have to know something about a candidate before they will consider casting their ballot for him or her.

Eastern Washington politicians are not the subject of regular news coverage in the Puget Sound, not like a Seattle mayor or a King County executive might be.

“If it doesn’t happen on television, it doesn’t happen,” said former state House Speaker Joe King of Vancouver, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1992.

A candidate can buy name recognition through television commercials, but that brings up another problem: money.

A successful U.S. Senate race could cost as much as $5 million next year, political analysts predict. That’s what U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton spent to retain his seat in 1994.

That sum is about five times the amount of Nethercutt’s 1994 campaign against Foley. Starting from scratch a year before the election, a candidate would need to raise nearly $10,000 a week to meet that mark.

Spending it can be tricky.

“You can easily blow a hundred grand to raise your name identification, and not have it do anything,” said Brett Bader of The Madison Group, which manages campaigns for conservative Republicans.

To afford those commercials, a candidate must follow the explanation Willie Sutton gave for robbing banks: That’s where the money is.

“The disadvantage somebody from Spokane has is, Seattle is where the money is,” Kneeland said.

Voters can be convinced, and wallets can be tapped, campaign consultants agreed. But candidates need to understand that issues mean different things to voters on opposite sides of the Cascades.

When an East Side voter complains about transportation problems, she usually means the streets are falling apart or there aren’t enough ways to get produce to markets. To a West Side voter, the transportation problem is the lengthening commute she must make each day to work.

Spokane voters often talk about encouraging growth. Seattle voters talk about controlling it.

Still, the issues aren’t so different that candidates from one side of the state have no chance of connecting with voters on the other side.

“The Cascade Curtain is not like the Iron Curtain,” said state Sen. Jim West of Spokane, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor last year. “Tacoma has many of the same feelings Spokane has.”

The candidate’s attitude is key, West said.

“If you start every conversation with ‘I’m from Eastern Washington, vote for me because we haven’t been elected for 40 years,’ that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.

Nethercutt, who has put off a decision on whether to run for the Senate until mid- to late September, has downplayed the geographic disadvantage of Eastern Washington candidates.

He said he’s more worried about the time a statewide campaign would take away from his family, and the cost. He’s still talking to family members, advisers and political leaders around the state before deciding, he said during an August recess swing through his congressional district.

That same trip took him to Seattle, where he toured Microsoft and a telecommunications firm, and held a fund-raiser.

Whenever the historical disadvantages of Eastern Washington candidates are mentioned, Nethercutt has a ready reply. He already bucked one historic trend in 1994 when he beat a sitting speaker of the U.S. House.

The last time that happened, the mail was delivered by Pony Express, Southern plantations held slaves and the U.S. flag had 34 stars - none of them for Washington state.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ELECTING EAST SIDERS Here’s a list of the most recent residents of Eastern Washington to be elected to statewide office.

U.S. Senate Clarence C. Dill, Spokane, 1928 Governor Clarence Martin, Cheney, 1936 Lieutenant Governor John Gellatly, Wenatchee, 1928 Secretary of State Earl Coe, Bingen, 1948 State Treasurer Robert O’Brien, Grant County, 1964 * State Auditor Cliff Yelle, Colfax, 1932 * Attorney General G.W. Hamilton, Prosser, 1932 Superintendent of Public Instruction Louis Bruno, Pullman, 1960 * Public Lands Commissioner A.C. Martin, Newport, 1936 Insurance Commissioner Karl Hermann, 1972 * O’Brien was re-elected four times, Yelle seven times and Bruno two times. In subsequent races, they usually listed their residence as Olympia.

This sidebar appeared with the story: ELECTING EAST SIDERS Here’s a list of the most recent residents of Eastern Washington to be elected to statewide office.

U.S. Senate Clarence C. Dill, Spokane, 1928 Governor Clarence Martin, Cheney, 1936 Lieutenant Governor John Gellatly, Wenatchee, 1928 Secretary of State Earl Coe, Bingen, 1948 State Treasurer Robert O’Brien, Grant County, 1964 * State Auditor Cliff Yelle, Colfax, 1932 * Attorney General G.W. Hamilton, Prosser, 1932 Superintendent of Public Instruction Louis Bruno, Pullman, 1960 * Public Lands Commissioner A.C. Martin, Newport, 1936 Insurance Commissioner Karl Hermann, 1972 * O’Brien was re-elected four times, Yelle seven times and Bruno two times. In subsequent races, they usually listed their residence as Olympia.

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