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Maria Cantwell seeking fourth term in U.S. Senate in race against Susan Hutchison

Incumbent U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, faces Republican Susan Hutchison in the November 2018 election. (Illustration / Michael Stephens)
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, faces Republican Susan Hutchison in the November 2018 election. (Illustration / Michael Stephens)

Susan Hutchison may have one of the toughest assignments on Washington’s ballot.

The former state Republican Party chairwoman, a conservative who strongly backed nominee Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign, is running for the U.S. Senate where statewide races tend to favor Democrats and most polls give the president low approval ratings.

Some say it could be a good year for female candidates, but she’s running against another woman, three-term incumbent Sen. Maria Cantwell, so that possible advantage is negated.

Cantwell has the advantages of office: Name recognition, connections to major national issues that generate media attention and the ability to announce federal largesse for local projects, like money for buses in Olympia, runways in Pullman or an account to fight wildfires in the west.

And she has more money. Cantwell had raised $9.8 million as of late July, the last deadline for Federal Elections Commission reports. Hutchison had reported about $540,000 by the same deadline, but said recently she was up to $1 million.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell isn’t making life any easier for Hutchison by threatening to keep the Senate in session through the end of October, making it difficult to schedule debates that could raise Hutchison’s profile with voters.

Hutchison accuses Cantwell of ducking debates, but Cantwell has a ready rejoinder: She’s elected to represent the state and she won’t miss votes to campaign. Two debates are being discussed, including one in Spokane, but so far there’s no firm schedule for those events.

They are far apart on most issues.

Cantwell voted against the Trump tax cuts, saying they would put Washington at a disadvantage by taking away deductions for the state sales tax and giving disproportionate cuts for wealthier individuals. Hutchison said she would have voted for the tax bill, which she said has boosted the economy and helped grow employment.

Hutchison criticizes Cantwell’s support of the Affordable Care Act saying it was set up by Democrats who expected it to fail so the country would go to socialized medicine. Cantwell opposed Republican changes to the ACA, criticizing plans to reduce Medicaid that boosted coverage for Washington residents.

Cantwell would fight the growing problem of opioid addiction with penalties on drug companies that “turn a blind eye to reckless distribution” in communities. She’s proposed legislation that would sharply increase civil and criminal penalties on manufacturers and distributors and provide some $280 million for joint federal, state and local enforcement. Hutchison would tighten prescriptions and prosecute illegal drugs coming in from other countries. The opioid crisis in Seattle, she contends, is the fault of city officials who “enable and tolerate more of the same.”

Both cite the importance of agriculture in the state. Cantwell is critical of the Trump administration’s tariffs with Washington farmers so dependent on exports; she is part of a bipartisan group that called for aid for the state’s cherry crop, which had been subject to tariff-generated losses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that cherries would be added to the list of commodities receving aid. Hutchison said many trade deals are outdated and need to be renegotiated and that Washington should have a Republican senator who can lobby the president for state interests.

It’s an example of where Hutchison is trying to walk a line in a state where voters split in 2016 – Trump carried every Eastern Washington county except Whitman but was swamped by Hillary Clinton in the Puget Sound area – by appealing to at least some in each camp.

“When President Trump is good for Washington state, I’ll support him, and when he’s not, I can talk to him,” she says.

Cantwell, 59, is a former state legislator who won a seat in the U.S. House in 1992, the year of the woman, and lost that seat in 1994, the year of the Republican tidal wave. She was an executive for a Seattle tech firm until 2000, when she narrowly defeated Republican Slade Gorton. Her two previous re-election campaigns were easier, topping attorney Mike McGavick by 17 percentage points in 2006 and Spokane state Sen. Mike Baumgartner by 21 points.

She serves on several workhorse committees of the Senate – Energy and Natural Resources; Commerce, Science and Transportation; Finance; Indian Affairs; Small Business and Entrepreneurship – which are not likely to raise her profile as could the Judiciary, Intelligence or Budget committees, which are more likely to make front page headlines and generate invitations to cable news shows. She was, however, paired with Sen. Bernie Sanders against Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Tim Scott for a live Town Hall on CNN last November.

Hutchison, 64, is a former television journalist and anchor in Seattle who later served as the executive of a Seattle-based foundation and held positions on several civic boards. She easily outdistanced the rest of the primary field of 28 Cantwell challengers with more than 10 times the vote of the third-place finisher, far-right activist Joey Gipson.

But a problem for Hutchison in that primary vote – with a wide range of candidates of almost every imaginable political stripe – was the fact that Cantwell pulled in nearly 55 percent of the votes, more than twice as many as Hutchison.

To change that for the general election, Hutchison will need strong turnout by Republicans in Washington’s red counties and hope that gun-rights advocates and tax foes will come out in such force to vote on state initiatives that it will turn normally deep blue Puget Sound counties at least to an even shade of purple.

Cantwell, however, could ride any blue wave that develops – whether it is a ripple or a tsunami – to a fourth term.

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