Rossi announces challenge to Sen. Murray

WEDNESDAY, MAY 26, 2010, 7:22 A.M.

OLYMPIA — After months of pressure from national Republicans, two-time gubernatorial runner-up Dino Rossi announced today he would take on Washington state’s powerful senior senator, Democrat Patty Murray.

Republicans need 10 seats to seize control of the U.S. Senate and Rossi represents a chance to put an 11th seat into play in November’s election.

Rossi announced his entry into the race with a five-minute video posted to his website this morning, citing concerns over the national debt, the health care reform bill and the stimulus package as reasons he decided to enter the race. He asks supporters to join him in a campaign “to help put things right.”

His announcement ends months of speculation over whether he would tackle a politician not generally viewed as vulnerable to anyone.

“I know I won’t be able to look my children, and someday their children, in the eye if I do nothing while this fundamental redefinition of America continues unchecked,” he said in the video. “I believe the policies being passed in Washington D.C. have put us on the edge of a fiscal cliff.”

Intrigued by polls earlier this year that showed he would be competitive, national Republicans courted Rossi aggressively.

At best, he represented a chance to put another Senate seat in play for the GOP in November’s election; at worst, he would keep Murray and her sizable campaign war chest busy at home instead of helping embattled colleagues elsewhere.

But Rossi hesitated for months, and many wondered if the former real estate agent and father of four was willing to tackle another campaign — and harsh scrutiny of his commercial real estate dealings — after two failed bids for the governor’s mansion. His 2004 defeat came after two recounts and a court case. Democrat Chris Gregoire won the 2008 rematch by some 200,000 votes. Murray, a three-term incumbent, figures to be as least as formidable an opponent.

“There’s strong anti-incumbent sentiments now, but I think if people consider Murray’s record, she’ll be served well,” said Paul Sisson, 59, a retired gardener from Seattle. “Rossi is a nice guy, but I don’t think he’s got the experience and judgment she has.”

The most intriguing of Rossi’s primary opponents is Clint Didier, an eastern Washington farmer most famous as a tight end for Washington Redskins in the 1980s. Didier, a favorite of some tea party activists, drew Twitter and Facebook endorsements from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin last week.

But don’t look for a rerun of the recent primary in Kentucky, where a tea party-backed candidate upset a more mainstream Republican. Washington state has no party registration, and all candidates appear on the primary ballot. The top two advance, regardless of party.

That means the roughly 1.4 million people who voted for Rossi in both 2004 and 2008 get a vote in the Aug. 17 primary. Didier, meanwhile, hails from sparsely populated eastern Washington, while Rossi grew up in Seattle and now lives in the city’s affluent and vote-rich eastern suburbs.

Rossi made a nod to the power of the tea party by tapping political consultant Pat Shortridge as his campaign manager, a Rossi confidante told The Associated Press. The confidante requested anonymity to avoid discussing the campaign before the official announcement. Shortridge was a top adviser for Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio, whose popularity surged due to tea party support.

“If Dino Rossi wants to win, he’s going to have to court the tea party,” said Shelby Blakely, a tea-party activist from the small eastern Washington town of Prosser. “This is Washington, you need every conservative you can get.”

Washington has leaned left in national politics in recent years. Ronald Reagan was the last Republican to carry the state in a presidential race. Six of its nine U.S. House members are Democrats, and fellow Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell easily won re-election four years ago after ousting Republican Slade Gorton in a close race in 2000.

Murray, first elected in 1992’s “Year of the Woman,” has won re-election twice by wide margins. She has aided powerful homegrown interests such as the Boeing Co., and delivers federal spending to all corners of the state.

“She brings a lot of stuff to our state. She’s able to get a lot of funding for a bunch of different projects,” said Peter St. Pierre, a 24-year-old general contractor from Bellevue who voted for Rossi in 2008 but finds himself on the fence over this race. “But at the same time, I like Dino Rossi’s politics better.”

Rossi built his 2004 campaign on the balanced budget deal he brokered a year earlier as the state Senate’s budget chairman, when he worked with Democrats to bridge a big deficit and avoid a tax increase in the post-9/11 downturn.

Critics argue he hasn’t done much since.

Against Murray, Rossi would have to confront hot-button social issues that he was able to avoid in his run for governor. For example, Rossi, who’s anti-abortion, was able to largely sidestep that issue in his runs for governor by conceding that abortion rights were well established in Washington.

Rossi will also have to deal with intense scrutiny of his commercial real estate interests. National Democrats have been on the attack for months, hoping to keep him out of the campaign. They paint Rossi’s career as a tangle of unsavory associations, and point to $20,000 in delinquent property taxes owed by his business partners as evidence of low ethical standards.

Rossi said he has no ownership interest in the property in question, and dismisses the attacks as a smear campaign.

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