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Statewide poll finds tea party strongest in east

Sun., Sept. 19, 2010

As she watches her family struggle through the recession, retired nurse Linda Durant says she is “absolutely fed up” with government.

The Spokane Valley resident blames George W. Bush and the Republicans for getting the country into the economic mess and Barack Obama and the Democrats for not doing enough lately to get it out. Not strong for either major political party right now, she finds the tea party movement more in line with her politics and would like the recent health care reforms repealed to keep the government from meddling in everyone’s medical care.

But she’ll likely vote to re-elect Patty Murray to the Senate, saying the three-term Democrat has served the state well and is experienced.

That may fly in the face of this year’s national political narrative that suggests the midterm election involves an electorate uniformly mad as hell, united behind such anti-government movements as the tea party and fed up with Democrats, incumbents or anyone remotely connected with government.

The story line for the November election in Washington state is muddled. Or at least that’s the indication from a new poll conducted for The Spokesman-Review and the Seattle Times by Elway Research Inc.

“The anger that is dominating the news in the national coverage isn’t here,” pollster H. Stuart Elway said.

Clearly, there’s concern about the faltering economy and the loss of jobs. Nearly half of the 500 likely voters surveyed from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12 listed the economy as the most important issue that will decide how they vote in the U.S. Senate race, the sole statewide elective office on the Nov. 2 ballot. That was nearly three times more than the second choice, the budget deficit. Percentages for war, terrorism, taxes, immigration and education were all in single digits.

While the rankings of the top political issue varies slightly among regions, age brackets or income levels in the poll, respondents were always more likely to say “the economy” or “jobs” when asked an open-ended question about their most important issue in the upcoming election.

With the unemployment rate above 9 percent nationally, that’s not surprising, Elway said. Economists may point to other statistics to make a case the recession is over, but “voters are pretty attentive to the jobless rate.”

Jenny Martin, of Spokane, is one such voter. Currently a stay-at-home mother with three kids, she’s looking for work; so is her husband. “We’re constantly looking for jobs,” said Martin, who like Durant was among voters contacted in the statewide survey and later interviewed for this story.

Yet her most pressing issue for deciding how to vote in the Senate race is the federal deficit. “I just think we’re spending like crazy,” Martin said. “Both of the parties, the spending is out of control.”

One reason she’s voting for Republican Dino Rossi instead of Murray is that he’s promised to get control of congressional earmarks, a type of directed federal spending to a member of Congress’ district or state. She doesn’t think federal spending helps ease unemployment and thinks some well-meaning programs do more harm than good.

“More than any other time, I’m just frustrated with the attitudes of congressmen and senators,” she said.

Martin considers herself an independent – she didn’t vote for Obama or John McCain in 2008 – and like Durant identifies more with the tea party. But she doesn’t see it as a movement based on anger or resentment. Instead, she sees a movement among people who want to return the country to the core values of the Constitution.

The tea party movement is stronger in Eastern Washington than in any other region of the state, the poll indicates. Nearly two-thirds of voters surveyed east of the Cascades said the movement represents most or some of their views, while less than one in four said it represented none or almost none of their views.

That’s in sharp contrast to King County, where some 39 percent said they shared most or some of the views of the movement and 32 percent said they had little or nothing in common with it.

But even in Eastern Washington, those who identify with the movement hold a variety of views. Gwen Konynenbelt, an ultrasound technician in Spokane County, sees the tea party movement as an effort to get the nation “back to the basics … to what the Founding Fathers intended.”

Joan McCarron, a school counselor in Spokane, agrees with the tea party movement on some issues such as federal spending but worries that some of the group’s members are “socially intolerant.” And she worries about the fringe groups in the political spectrum who claim Obama wasn’t born in the United States, or those that say he’s a Muslim – “like that’s a bad thing, even if he were,” she added.

The poll suggests that voters who agree with the tea party on most issues are much more likely to vote for Rossi. That’s true for Martin and Konynenbelt.

But it’s not a perfect predictor: Durant, who agrees with the movement on most issues and regrets her 2008 vote for Obama, said she’ll vote for Murray even though she doesn’t agree with everything the incumbent has done. And McCarron, who lists herself as sharing some of the movement’s views, has voted for Murray in the past and will again.

Tea party support or opposition is a strong indicator – but again not a perfect predictor – of other feelings among voters, the poll indicates. Those who share most or some of the movement’s views were far more likely to have voted for McCain in 2008 and those who said they share none or almost none of its views were about equally likely to have voted for Obama.

Strong supporters of the tea party movement are also much more likely to give Obama poor marks for keeping his campaign promises or to say “nothing” when asked what he’s accomplished so far.

“The tea party movement is clearly a phenomenon, but I’m skeptical it’s going to define the election,” Elway said. “It’s certainly going to affect it.”

The poll also shows voters in different regions of the state have sharply different views on Obama’s job performance, the importance of federal earmarks, what should happen to a recent law that changed health care policies or who is most responsible for the country’s economic problems.

Eastern Washington voters were much more likely than King County voters to say Obama has accomplished nothing and has done a poor job of keeping his campaign promises.

Voters statewide are about evenly split on whether the earmark system should be stopped or that it’s a good way to get money for Washington. But along with Pierce and Kitsap voters, those east of the Cascades were much more likely to say they want the practice stopped while voters in King County and the north Puget Sound area were more likely to say it’s a good way to get money into the state.

When asked what should happen with the new health care reform law, voters statewide were about equally divided between saying it should be given a chance to work, have some changes or be repealed altogether. But Eastern Washington voters were twice as likely to say it should be repealed as given a chance to work.

Asked who is responsible for the nation’s economic problems, Eastern Washington voters were a bit more likely to say Democrats, and a bit more likely to say they trust Republicans to handle the nation’s top issues in the next few years.

They may also be a bit more skeptical of both parties than state voters as a whole. Nearly one in three Eastern Washington voters said both parties were responsible for the economic problems, compared with about one in four statewide. And nearly one in four Eastern Washington voters said they didn’t trust either party to handle their top issues, compared with 16 percent statewide.

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