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AT THE RACES: Rossi Sets Budget-Cutting Sights on DC

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SEATTLE -- Dino Rossi must be weary of political rollercoaster rides. In 2004, he won the initial vote tally in Washington State’s gubernatorial race by a few hundred votes and maintained his lead after a recount. A second recount, however, conveniently pushed Democrat Christine Gregoire over the top by 133 votes—amidst allegations that the state had failed to expeditiously mail ballots to military personnel deployed overseas. Despite the shady process, Rossi’s win was wiped out. In 2008, Rossi took a second crack at his state’s governorship, this time in a terrible electoral environment for his party. He again fell to Gregoire—this time by a legitimate six point margin—despite outpacing John McCain’s Washington margin by 11 points. Undeterred by previous heartbreaking setbacks, Rossi is ready for a third bite at the statewide office apple; he’s seeking to unseat incumbent Democratic Senator Patty Murray this November.

True to form, Rossi’s latest race is wide open and has been chock full of twists and turns. Polling in the contest has been whiplash-inducing. In early September, Murray appeared to be opening up an insurmountable lead, but Rossi has rebounded to claim a narrow edge with three weeks to go. “[Murray’s] bounce is gone,” says Rossi’s Communications Director, Jennifer Morris. “We’re playing within the margin of error at this point.” Washington State Republicans are keeping their fingers crossed that 2010 won’t end up being another frustrating chapter in Rossi’s political career.

To prevent another electoral disappointment, his campaign is pounding two simple campaign themes: “Restore the dream, and control the spending.” It’s a savvy message because it addresses the economic concerns that permeate the national debate, and it underscores Rossi’s established record as an effective fiscal hawk. As a State Senator representing eastern King County in 2003, Rossi faced a daunting task when he chaired the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee. The state’s budget deficit had bloated to a record high, the Senate GOP caucus held a tiny one-seat majority, and Democrats controlled both the state House and Governorship. Rossi laid out a bold goal: “I said I was going to balance the budget without raising taxes, while protecting the most vulnerable in society,” he recalls as we chat after a campaign event in downtown Seattle. “What [my doubters] didn’t realize was that I didn’t care if I got re-elected, which was very freeing.”

Unburdened by re-election calculations, Rossi analyzed the state’s budget line-by-line. He reviewed thousands of items, and identified enough cuts to eliminate the massive shortfall while avoiding tax hikes. “I was painted as the bad guy by public employees unions and a little-known group called SEIU,” he remembers. “One day there was a commotion outside of my office. I looked out the window and saw hundreds of people in purple shirts with bullhorns chanting ‘Dino Rossi: Mean and cheap.’ I wasn’t popular with everyone, but we did it.” Indeed they did. Rossi personally traveled the state to lobby a handful of wavering Democratic Senators, ultimately persuading them to join Republicans in voting for the trimmed-down budget. Riding the momentum of winning bipartisan support in the Senate, the Rossi budget passed the Democratic House before earning the signature of Democratic Governor Gary Locke.

“President Obama talks about reaching across the aisle and picking through budgets line-by-line. I actually did it,” Rossi says. He even did it while winning accolades from developmentally disabled advocacy groups and senior citizens’ organizations—fulfilling his promise to protect society’s most vulnerable members during the budget cutting process. Rossi believes the same principles he employed in Olympia are desperately needed in Washington, DC. “We’ve shown that it can be done. It’s too easy to just tax other people. What really takes courage is looking people in the eye—even some of your supporters—and saying ‘we’re broke and we’re going to have to do some things differently,’” he says.

To spread his message of fiscal responsibility, Rossi has been traveling the state—a lot. Since May, he’s racked up enough miles during his travels that he could have driven from Seattle to New York, and back, five times. He says he’s encountered strong voter enthusiasm at every step of his journey. “We had 200-300 people at a 9 am rally down in the 3rd District on Saturday,” he says. “Despite pouring rain,” Rossi Press Secretary Erin Daly chimes in.

Meanwhile, Patty Murray is in a precarious position. In Washington’s “top-two”-style primary in August, 54 percent of voters picked someone other than the incumbent. “This is a dangerous zone for her,” Morris says. The Seattle Times has slammed Murray’s attack ads against Rossi as “grossly malicious” and “dishonest”—in spite of their editorial endorsement of her. “A lot of people are shocked to learn she’s been [in the Senate] for 18 years,” Rossi says of his opponent. “People don’t know she’s number four in the Democratic senate leadership, or that National Journal rated her the most liberal Senator in 2008. She even beat out a self-described socialist, Bernie Sanders.”

Public opinion shifts indicate that ever fewer Washington voters remain in the dark about Murray’s unappealing record. The last three polls show the Republican pulling ahead, presenting Team Rossi with a major opportunity to solidify its lead. They’ve pulled in a massive fundraising haul, which Rossi expects will slow his campaign to go “dollar for dollar” with the heavily- funded incumbent throughout October. Ballots will begin arriving in voters’ mailboxes on Friday (Washington residents vote almost exclusively by mail)—right on the heels of Rossi and Murray’s first televised debate in Spokane. Murray has only agreed to two face-offs with Rossi, a strategy often embraced by frontrunners. Considering the late-breaking momentum in the race, Murray may want to re-evaluate who’s the real underdog.

“I don’t need this job,” Rossi says of serving in the US Senate, “But America needs this job needs to be done. And it needs to be done by someone without concern for the next election, and that’s what my campaign is about.”

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