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Spin Control: Murray was key in party recruiting

Sun., Nov. 11, 2012, midnight

It might be easy to argue that the biggest winner in Tuesday’s election, outside of the folks who were actually on a ballot, was Patty Murray.

She certainly sounded like it last week. “I’m really excited,” she said with greater-than-normal enthusiasm in a phone interview while on her way to catch a plane.

The senator was chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, making her the person in charge of Democrats’ efforts to elect members of their own party to the chamber. They raise money from big donors and hound any possible money source with constant and urgent emails. They offer campaign advice and support. But most of all, they find people to run.

When Murray acquiesced to that job – it’s not one that has a long line of applicants – the safe money bet was that Democrats would lose Senate seats and possibly the majority.

That would have been a major reversal of fortunes from the heady days of 2009, when Obama’s moving vans were pulling up to the White House and Democrats had a 60-40 split in the Senate and controlled the House. After Murray survived the tea party shift in the electorate in her 2010 election campaign, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked her – some say twisted her arm – to run the DSCC.

The majority was down to 53-47, and the Democrats had 23 seats up in the 2012 election compared to 10 for the Republicans. Six of those Democrats were retiring, so it wasn’t just a matter of finding money for incumbents in those spots but of beating the bushes for new prospects as well as challengers for sitting Republicans.

She said she went to work on people she thought could win, convincing them they could make a difference on issues that were important to them. With Tim Kane, of Virginia, the former Democratic national chairman who said he wasn’t going to run, she helped change his mind by talking early childhood education. With Tammy Baldwin, of Wisconsin, who told of growing up with her grandmother and struggling to get medical treatment, she talked health care.

“I have a story like that for every one,” she said last week.

In part because of Murray’s recruiting, Democrats didn’t just hold their majority in the Senate. They grew it to 55-45, including independent Angus King of Maine and socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont. But one ratio is worth noting: 1 to 4. That’s the ratio of women to men in that august body.

Murray was first elected to the Senate in 1992, an election cycle that was dubbed The Year of the Woman. Four women were elected to the chamber that year, tripling the number of female senators to six. Now there are 20 women: 16 Democrats and four Republicans. There will be a Democratic woman on every Senate committee, Murray said.

The fact that more women were elected this year, and yet no one is declaring this Year of the Woman 2.0, is a testament to how much things have changed in 20 years.

“I think I set out to recruit good people,” she said last week. “I was happy to find really good women.”

While she didn’t set out to recruit just women, Murray said she thinks other people who try to recruit candidates don’t pay as much attention to women. After this year, maybe that will change.

Much was made of Murray’s political position when she was tapped for another high-profile job, the co-chairwoman of the so-called supercommittee, a mixture of Democrats and Republicans, senators and representatives, tasked with finding a way out of the nation’s budget mess.

The supercommittee did about as well with that assignment as the Washington State University Cougars did with the University of Utah. Discussions broke down, each party blamed the other and the nation continued to roll toward what is now commonly dubbed the “fiscal cliff,” a combination of budget cuts and tax increases that could end the slowly improving economy like snuffing out a flickering candle.

Post-election, party leaders from both chambers are talking negotiation and compromise. Murray thinks it’s more than just talk. Republican leaders may be willing to look at some new revenues, which she said was the major sticking point in reaching any solution on the supercommittee. President Barack Obama and all the Democrats who won Senate seats this year campaigned on making some new revenue part of the solution, so their hand is strengthened.

“There’s a real opportunity to reach a solution we couldn’t get a year ago,” she said.

As excited as she is about Tuesday’s election results, Murray said she’s not volunteering for another cycle leading the DSCC and expects Reid will pass this hot potato to someone else: “I’ve got other challenges next year.”

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at /spincontrol.

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