OLYMPIA – After four years as governor, with a more-aggressive campaign and a war chest nearly twice as large, Chris Gregoire nonetheless finds herself uncomfortably close to where she was in 2004: locked in a very close race.
The state’s political landscape suggests she should be well ahead of challenger Dino Rossi. It’s a Democratic-leaning state, with Barack Obama heavily favored to win here in November. Being female is generally considered an election asset in this Washington. And Gregoire’s been a highly visible governor, crisscrossing the state and avoiding any major scandals, while Rossi spent the last several years largely out of the public eye.
Yet four years after Gregoire beat Rossi by just 133 votes, most polls suggest the two remain neck and neck. The last seven polls by the firm SurveyUSA, for example, show the two candidates “effectively tied.”
“Other things being equal, an incumbent should do better running the second time around,” said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University. Why isn’t Gregoire doing better? Donovan says it’s three things: “the campaign, the candidate and the economy.”
Rossi is running a strong, visible campaign, he said. Voters are more likely to blame an incumbent for a tanking economy. As for the candidate herself, Donovan said polling shows Gregoire has trouble getting younger, male independents to vote for her. They’ll vote for Democrats like Obama or John Kerry, he said, but for reasons that remain unclear, they won’t vote for Gregoire.
“I think some of it might be that she doesn’t have the same kind of personal charisma or at least it doesn’t come across very well as someone like Obama,” said David Nice, a political science professor at Washington State University. It’s not that voters are particularly mad at the governor, he said. It’s just that she hasn’t created a large personal following.
“I think we’re going to end up with a really close vote at the end,” Nice predicts. In fact, he thinks it will be so close that the state will again have to recount results.
After several debates, neither side’s had a game-changing knockout punch, although Gregoire’s improved from 2004. Her attacks on Rossi are sharper, yet she seems more at ease than she did during the ’04 debates.
Amid a constellation of complex issues – Washington’s transportation mess, school funding, health care – the candidates have carved out simple appeals to voters.
Gregoire says she’s the experienced, tough manager who can lead the state through difficult times. Rossi, she maintains, is an out-of-touch George Bush clone who’s far to the right of most Washingtonians on issues like abortion and the promise of embryonic stem-cell research.
Rossi says that after 23 years of Democratic governors, Olympia needs his brand of fiscal conservatism.
He promises a more customer service-focused state government and says he’ll boost small business. His biggest criticism of Gregoire: a 33 percent runup in the state budget in four years.
Here’s where the two stand on major issues:
Gregoire pins the blame for the national financial crisis on the Bush administration, and says there’s no reason to think Rossi would be different.
After months of Republican attacks, Gregoire recently pledged not to raise taxes in tough economic times. Her answer to a projected $3.2 billion budget shortfall in the next two years is careful budgeting and spurring the economy.
But she also defends recent state-budget growth as critical investments in early learning, teacher pay and kids’ health care, among other things. Against some pushback from fellow Democrats, Gregoire also got lawmakers to launch a hard-to-tap “rainy-day fund” with hundreds of millions of dollars to cushion against drastic budget cuts in lean years. She’s also made changes such as a hiring freeze expected to save $290 million.
Rossi has repeatedly said that Gregoire just has to “look in the mirror” to see the source of the state’s spending problem. In the face of the budget shortfall, he promises not to raise taxes. He says budget-scrubbing is what’s really needed, although he’s offered few specifics about what he’d cut. But he vows to make the state more business-friendly, particularly to small businesses and startups.
Gregoire says health care “is a right, not a perk,” and she and Democratic lawmakers have expanded state-subsidized health coverage for low-income kids. Several competing proposals to broaden health coverage are floating around Olympia, but none has yet reached Gregoire’s desk.
Rossi says the state should reduce the number of things it forces health insurers here to cover, which he says would reduce the cost. As things stand now, he says, people are forced to pay for coverage they may not need. Rossi’s also a fan of health savings accounts.
Gregoire points to the more than 160 highway projects completed during her term, with more than 100 more on the way. She’s pushing to resolve thorny Seattle-area problems like replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Amid skyrocketing costs on current projects, she and lawmakers have put little new money into the multibillion-dollar North Spokane Corridor project in recent years, but Gregoire calls it “a major priority.”
Rossi has proposed a $15 billion plan that he says would jump-start congestion relief. It includes new money for the North Spokane Corridor and numerous other major projects around the state. But Rossi would come up with much of that money by tapping part of the state sales tax on vehicles. He would also eliminate the sales tax paid on transportation projects. Such changes would pull billions of dollars from the state’s general fund, which pays for education, health care and other state services.
Helped by a then-surging state economy, Gregoire put hundreds of millions of dollars into increased pay for teachers and efforts to reduce class sizes. She’s also championed early childhood education and pushed for more all-day kindergarten.
Rossi says he’ll replace the controversial Washington Assessment of Student Learning test with a better standardized test like those used in other states. “Like a business, we must reward success” in schools, he says, meaning more pay for the most effective teachers and principals. Rossi would also make it easier for principals to fire bad teachers and change failing curricula.
Gregoire has launched an ambitious Puget Sound cleanup program and has been an outspoken advocate for changes to reduce greenhouse gases. She’s promoted biofuel initiatives and other renewable energy programs.
Rossi’s plans include a decade-long tax exemption for hybrid and electric cars and fixing more than 1,600 salmon-blocking road culverts statewide. He says he’d protect full funding for state parks, a critical place for families to enjoy the outdoors. He also wants the state’s vast hydropower system counted in climate-change programs, a move he says could reduce the region’s power costs. And he says he’ll promote the expansion of nuclear power here.