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U.S. Senate race offers stark choice in politics

To make the switch from state senator to U.S. senator, Republican Michael Baumgartner faces some tall obstacles.

He has to beat an experienced, popular and well-funded incumbent, two-term Democrat Maria Cantwell. He has to raise the low profile of a freshman legislator from a conservative Spokane district and achieve recognition in more populous Puget Sound, where the electorate is generally more liberal. He has to overcome the historical disadvantage of being from Eastern Washington, which hasn’t been the home of a U.S. senator since 1934.

A tall order, but not impossible, he insists, noting he met his wife, a British journalist, in an unlikely place: “If Michael Baumgartner can find love in the Helmand province, all things are possible.”

The race is a study in contrasts.

Cantwell is 53, single, a former legislator who made the jump to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992, only to be ousted by the Republican tidal wave in 1994. She landed on her feet with RealNetworks, became a millionaire, and used some of that money to win her race against Republican icon Slade Gorton in 2000 and easily defeat a Seattle business leader in 2006.

She campaigns now on “moving forward” on the path laid out by President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress.

Baumgartner is 36 and married, with two boys, a toddler and a newborn. A former foreign service officer and adviser, he beat a well-funded Democratic incumbent in the state’s most expensive legislative race in history in 2010.

Cantwell’s a progressive liberal with strong union support; Baumgartner’s a fiscal conservative with tea party support. But each has produced examples during the campaign of their ability to work with members of the other party on certain legislation.

About the only other thing they have in common is a distinction they didn’t seek but received by a journalistic organization: Cantwell was named sexiest senator on Capitol Hill by readers of the Huffington Post in 2009. Baumgartner was named one of the sexiest people in the Inland Northwest by the Pacific Northwest Inlander in 2011.

While Congress is held in generally low regard, Cantwell is emphasizing things that have passed. She supported the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, sometimes called Obamacare, and talks about the people who will benefit from expanded coverage. She also talks about work to pave the way for Boeing to beat out European rival Airbus for an Air Force contract on new air refueling tankers – it’s an item that plays well on both sides of the state because the planes would be assembled in Everett and might be stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base.

“I will fight to preserve Social Security and Medicare,” she says, often adding that her opposition for deficit-cutting plans like Bowles-Simpson and a House budget drafted by congressman turned vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is based on proposed changes to those programs.

Baumgartner tries to capitalize on those low approval ratings by calling Congress “a bipartisan failure on both sides” and noting the Senate has not passed a budget for years. He notes that when Cantwell took office in 2001, the nation was running a surplus; now it’s running a deficit.

It’s running a deficit in part because it started two wars and expanded Medicare without paying for them, Cantwell replies. You voted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Baumgartner counters. But the way to pay for them, or not pay for them, was Bush administration policy, she parries.

Baumgartner breaks with the mainstream Republican Party to criticize America’s involvement in Afghanistan and call for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. Early in the campaign he complained that no one seemed to care about the war as an issue; in his one debate with Cantwell, he mentioned the war at every opportunity, making it part of his answers regarding the nation’s pending fiscal cliff and why the United States should avoid military intervention in Syria.

Cantwell says she supported the legislation in 2010 that called for a plan to end the war and now supports Obama’s timetable to have combat troops out in 2014, when the Afghan government is supposed to take full responsibility for the country’s security.

Baumgartner supports a 1-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax to help pay for services for returning veterans. Cantwell says that while she’s a strong supporter of veterans programs, gas taxes should pay solely for transportation projects.

Whatever the issue, Cantwell can make her case louder and more often. Her campaign has raised more than $9 million, compared with about $1 million for Baumgartner. He counters, “Campaigns shouldn’t be about who’s got the most money, but who has the best ideas and solutions.”

Cantwell makes no apologies for her larger campaign fund, saying she supported major campaign financing reforms like McCain-Feingold. “I certainly support making sure we have transparency,” she says.


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