OLYMPIA – The 2008 governor’s race officially launches Thursday, when Republican Dino Rossi is expected to announce – in Spokane and Issaquah – that he will again challenge Democrat Chris Gregoire.
“I won’t deny anything, but it’s Dino’s announcement to make,” his campaign spokeswoman Jill Strait said Tuesday. The Associated Press, citing anonymous GOP sources, reported late Monday that Rossi will run.
If so, it will be a rematch of the 2004 cliffhanger, which left Rossi trailing the former attorney general by 133 votes after two recounts and election lawsuit in Wenatchee. But after three years as a quiet candidate-in-waiting, some political observers say, Rossi faces a tougher fight. Over the past three years, Gregoire has led trade missions, brokered deals, written two budgets and made many appearances across the state.
“Compared to the last go-round, she’s in a somewhat stronger position,” said David Nice, a political science professor at Washington State University. “I don’t have a sense that she’s done too many things that have made people mad.”
Gregoire – who’s clearly running but has yet to officially kick off her campaign – has raised $3 million for the race and has been buoyed by round after round of economic good news over the past year and a half. The governor has also won grudging admiration from some of the same Republican lawmakers who refused to applaud her opening speech as governor in 2005.
Long gone are the “Re-vote or revolt!” signs that adorned some cars in the legislative parking lot. One of the few visible reminders of the bitter feelings at the time is a “Re-vote” sign still hanging in the Olympia office window of state Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland.
“The winds kind of went out of the sails of that ‘she’s not my governor’ stuff,” said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University. While party stalwarts on both sides vividly remember the high drama at the time, he said, independent voters probably don’t.
“They’re not thinking back four years,” he said. “And that’s who makes or breaks an election.”
As an example, both Nice and Donovan cited the 2000 presidential race, Florida ballot flap and Bush-Gore U.S. Supreme Court fight.
“How much did the Florida thing hurt George Bush four years later?” Donovan said. “It didn’t. People forgot about it, and when he ran for re-election, he did even better.”
State GOP chairman Luke Esser – who would say only that he’s “very optimistic” about Thursday’s announcement from Rossi – says Gregoire’s record will be a minus, not a plus.
“It was all about promises four years ago,” he said. “Now there’s a real record that can be pointed out to voters.”
He cited tax increases, particularly reinstatement of Washington’s estate tax and large increases in state spending, both of which the governor has characterized as key “investments,” particularly in education. Esser also criticized ongoing problems with the foster-care system and early release of felons by the state Department of Corrections during Gregoire’s watch.
“There’s a lot wrong in state government that can be pointed to,” he said.
Esser said he’s also heartened by a couple of polls this year that suggested Gregoire’s approval rating with voters is below 50 percent. (Rossi’s was a couple points lower, but within the margin of error.) For an incumbent, Esser said, that suggests Gregoire’s vulnerable.
State Democrats have been convinced that Rossi would run for months. This summer, they filed a complaint with state campaign-finance officials, charging that Rossi’s “Forward Washington” foundation and speeches were actually a stealth campaign. It’s still under investigation.
This morning, in a “curtain-raiser” meant to undercut Rossi’s usual line of attack, Democrats plan to circulate a Web video that touts the business and economic climate in Washington: “210,000 new jobs…Record investment in education…Lowest unemployment in state history…Time for a new rationale, Dino.”
“Nothing will be taken for granted, but Washington state is moving forward together under Gov. Gregoire’s leadership,” said state Democratic Party spokesman Kelly Steele. “Voters will understand Republican Dino Rossi would take us dangerously in the wrong direction.”
In Spokane, county GOP chairman Curt Fackler said he’s excited to have Rossi as a candidate. But Gregoire is a formidable opponent, he said, particularly when rising state spending is masked by a growing economy.
“I think Gregoire is very politically smart,” he said. “I think it’s going to be difficult.”
Rossi’s best hope, Fackler said, will be Elections 101: getting Republican voters to vote. Republicans were stunned a year ago, when voter anger over the war in Iraq cost Republicans numerous seats in the statehouse.
“The reason that Republicans did so lousy is that our people just didn’t vote,” Fackler said.
With a hotly contested presidential race under way, it also may be harder for Rossi to tap national donors for money than it was in 2004, Nice said.
“A lot of money’s getting vacuumed up,” he said.
Despite Gregoire’s $3 million lead, Esser said he’s confident that Rossi will get enough money to get his message across to voters.
“She’ll need more,” Esser said of Gregoire. “She’s got a lot of explaining to do.”
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