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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Murray, Smiley race for U.S. Senate narrows as candidates head into debate in Spokane on Sunday

Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and GOP challenger Tiffany Smiley.

With less than three weeks until Election Day, the race for U.S. Senate is narrowing.

Longtime U.S. Sen. Patty Murray will face Republican newcomer Tiffany Smiley in November to represent Washington in the U.S. Senate for the next six years.

Smiley’s gap could be closing behind Murray with a new SurveyUSA poll released Friday from the Seattle Times and other media partners showing Murray with about 49% of voters and Smiley with about 41%. Smiley was the preferred candidate for 33% of respondents in a similar poll from July.

A number of election predictors, including Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and the Cook Political Report, have recently moved their predictions for Washington’s Senate seat from Solid Democratic to Likely Democratic.

The two candidates will face off in a debate Sunday hosted by The Spokesman-Review and the League of Women Voters in partnership with the Washington State Debate Coalition at the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center at Gonzaga University. Tickets for the debate are sold out, but it will air on KSPS, as well as a number of other media outlets, at 5 p.m. Sunday.

It will be the only debate the two will have this election season, though Murray and Smiley have agreed to appear in a one-hour town hall with KIRO 7 in Seattle on Oct. 30.

Ballots have dropped, but Sunday’s debate will give undecided voters the opportunity to hear from the candidates on a number of issues.

In the August primary, Murray finished ahead of Smiley with about 52% of the vote. Smiley received more than 33% of the vote.

In the months since the primary, polls have show varied results between the candidates.

The Seattle-based Crosscut Elway poll from September had Murray with 50%, Smiley with 37% and 12% of voters undecided, but other polls were closer. The Trafalgar Group released a statewide poll in September that had Murray up by only about 2 percentage points, with about 5% undecided.

Following similar trends with the poll released Friday, political analyst Nate Silver’s website, FiveThirtyEight, showed the polling average of Murray’s lead fall from 11 points to 8.6 points on Friday.

H. Stuart Elway, who conducts the Crosscut Elway poll, said the difference in polls is methodology, but Trafalgar is not as transparent with its polling process, so it’s hard to say why their results were so close.

Elway said he expects the race to narrow as the election nears. In previous years, Murray has shown some vulnerability in early polls, but has come out ahead with 55% to 59% of the vote, Elway said.

It is possible for Smiley to win, but when the poll leader has more than 50%, it makes it difficult for the person trailing to gain enough votes.

They would need to get all of the undecided voters, as well as some of the people voting for Murray, Elway said.

“Most of the time, the last-minute vote-changers aren’t enough to carry the day for someone,” Elway told The Spokesman-Review.

Still, as the race narrows, the two campaigns have not backed down in their ads and fundraising.

At the end of the latest fundraising quarter, Smiley outraised Murray, bringing in $5.7 million to Murray’s $3.4 million.

In her most recent ads, Smiley continues to push that voters want a change in the Senate next year. Last week, she released a series of ads that featured a number of former Murray voters who said they would be voting for Smiley this year. Other ads criticize Murray for crime and inflation.

In recent weeks, Smiley has also taken aim at the Seattle Seahawks, Starbucks and the Seattle Times for not letting her use their logos in her ads.

Meanwhile, Murray has released a number of ads targeting Smiley’s views on abortion and attempting to link Smiley with far-right extremists. The Murray campaign has also pointed to a number of likes on Smiley’s Twitter from years ago about abortion. In 2017 and 2018, Smiley liked a number of tweets from politicians who touted nationwide abortion bans and cutting funding to Planned Parenthood.

The top issues in the race reflect those of the two national parties this midterm election. Sunday’s debate could be the only opportunity voters get to hear the candidates debate them.

Murray, one of the most powerful people in the Senate, says Washington needs a voice to fight for abortion access and against lies surrounding the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection. Smiley, a veterans advocate from Pasco, says Washington needs a senator who will work to lower inflation and reduce crime.

In his polling, Elway said he’s not sure what will determine who wins in this election. Republican and Democratic voters seemed to be talking about two different elections with totally different issues, unlike most years when they argue over the same thing, Elway said.

“I don’t think we’re in normal times,” Elway said. “The whole election feels more fraught this year. I don’t know what voters are really thinking.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.