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Cantwell’s Senate foes facing a tough campaign

Two-term incumbent has many advantages over a host of challengers

For Michael Baumgartner, the challenge he faces in winning Washington’s U.S. Senate seat could be as formidable as the mountains that bisect the state.

Democrat Maria Cantwell is a well-funded, two-term incumbent in a state that most national political experts color deep blue. She beat a GOP icon, Slade Gorton, to win the seat in 2000 and dispatched a well-known Republican challenger, Seattle business executive Mike McGavick, in 2006.

Baumgartner is a freshman state senator halfway through a term representing a Spokane district and has less than a tenth of Cantwell’s campaign resources.

The state’s voters haven’t sent a candidate from Eastern Washington from either party to the U.S. Senate since 1934.

“Obviously, we are the underdog,” Baumgartner acknowledges.

The former State Department officer and consultant doesn’t have the GOP field to himself. Five of the seven would-be challengers to Cantwell list themselves as Republicans. Although Baumgartner is better-funded and most party leaders’ preferred match against Cantwell, Shoreline primary care physician Art Coday has enough GOP bona fides to get a speaking spot at the party’s state convention.

Like Baumgartner, Coday is a fiscal and social conservative, opposed to deficit spending and the federal health care reform law that Cantwell helped pass. Both are spending most of their energy running against the incumbent, although they appeared together this week at several forums around the state.

The rest of the field includes Republican Mike the Mover and Reform Party hopeful Will Baker, who have run unsuccessfully for a variety of offices over the years; Glen “Stocky” Stockwell, of Ritzville, a proponent of completion of the Columbia Basin project who has run for several offices on that platform for both parties; and merchant seaman Chuck Jackson, also a Republican. Hairstylist and salon owner Timmy Doc Wilson is the only other Democrat in the race.

A former State Department officer in the Middle East, Baumgartner is critical of Cantwell for her votes to support U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, now in their 12th year. He spent time with a counternarcotics task force in Afghanistan, trying to get natives to shift their crops from opium to wheat. It’s also where he met his wife, Eleanor, who was working on the same project.

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks required a response, he said, but not the 12-year war the nation finds itself in. He’d like to get most American forces out of Afghanistan, reducing the presence to “about 5,000 troops,” then bring the war to an end as quickly as possible.

Foreign policy stances like that have some in his own party asking “What kind of a Republican are you?” he said.

Cantwell, who supported Obama’s plan to end the war in Iraq and pushed him for a “timetable” on Afghanistan, has a record of voting yes on most military spending, positioning herself as someone who protects the state’s many military bases, makes sure troops have the best equipment, good services for themselves and their families, and better programs for returning veterans.

Baumgartner shares the general GOP antipathy for Obama’s signature health care reform legislation. Cantwell pushed several sections of that bill she said were designed to help Washington, including money for the state’s Basic Health program and a measure to expand the number of primary care slots for medical students. Last month’s Supreme Court decision was a victory because it meant people can’t be denied insurance for pre-existing conditions, allows young adults to stay on their parents’ health care plans longer and helps make Basic Health a national model, she said.

As a legislator, Baumgartner voted against changing Washington law to accommodate the new federal law by setting up health benefits exchanges, and he believes the federal law should be repealed in its entirety. First, however, he believes Republicans should craft a proposal that offers more choices and more transparency in health care, with an interstate insurance market, catastrophic coverage and malpractice reform, and pass that at the same time they repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Baumgartner contends his Eastern Washington address isn’t as big of a disadvantage as history suggests. George Nethercutt, the Spokane congressman, fared better against Sen. Patty Murray in 2004 than former Safeco CEO McGavick did against Cantwell in 2006, he said. But both lost by more than 10 percent. Former state Sen. Dino Rossi of suburban King County came within 5 percent of Murray two years ago, but had the advantage of two previous statewide runs for governor.

If he survives the August primary, Baumgartner will need significant infusions of cash to raise his profile with voters. At the end of last month, he had raised about $553,000 to Cantwell’s $7.9 million.

None of this seems to faze Baumgartner, who launches into detailed discussions of policy issues, foreign or domestic, at any opportunity.

“It’ll be a tough campaign to win, but it’s an easy campaign to talk about,” he said.