Watch the other Washington

Posted: Sep 22, 2000 12:00 AM
East Coast conservatives cheered last week after the primary election loss of political turncoat Rep. Mike Forbes of New York. "His stunning defeat has national implications," the Wall Street Journal's John Fund wrote in his online campaign diary. "It makes it more likely the GOP will keep the House." Good riddance to the liberal Republican-turned-Democrat Forbes, but the GOP shouldn't pop the champagne corks just yet. Look westward: Washington state held a bellwether primary election on Tuesday. The state was ground zero for the Republican revolution of 1994, when Washington's nine congressional districts went from 8-1 for the Democrats to 7-2 for the GOP. Among the casualties: encrusted Democrat House Speaker Tom Foley. In 1998, however, the Democrats reclaimed some swing districts to take a 5-4 lead in the state delegation. Democrats now need just six seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate to erase the GOP majority. Since the Evergreen State still holds open primaries, voters can cast their ballots across party lines -- making the primary election a noteworthy barometer for things to come in November. Judging from Tuesday's results in "the other Washington," the political forecast for both House and Senate Republicans in the nation's capital is cloudy. GOP Sen. Slade Gorton, a three-term incumbent, garnered an anemic 43.9 percent of the vote. Anything under 50 percent for an incumbent spells trouble. Gorton faces a tough opponent, former Democratic congresswoman Maria Cantwell, who parlayed her political cache into dot-com wealth and dumped $5 million into her primary campaign. Cantwell's war chest isn't the only worrisome source of anti-Gorton funding. Indian tribes, who have long battled Gorton over sovereignty issues, have vowed to raise $1 million to defeat Gorton; they've called on deep-pocketed tribal casino leaders in California to join the fight. Gorton has trouble on his right flank as well. Grass-roots conservatives are still seething over Slippery Slade's split vote on impeachment of President Clinton (he voted to convict based on the obstruction of justice charge, but not perjury). He supports increased funding for the National Endowment of the Arts, and recently introduced a Hillaryesque plan for prescription drug price controls. Gorton supporters argue that his seniority and pork-barreling skills are good for the state. Tom Foley made the same arguments. After two decades in office, Washington voters in both parties may finally put Gorton out to pasture with Foley. The congressional races in Washington state offer a similarly gray outlook for Republicans. In a trio of once-tough swing districts targeted by Republicans -- the 1st, 3rd, and 9th -- all three Democrat incumbents had an easy time, each receiving at least 56.6 percent of the vote. (By comparison, the three Democrat incumbents from these districts in 1994 all fell below the benchmark 50 percent in the primary and went on to lose their general election bids.) Two other Democrat incumbents this year, Seattle-area Reps. Norm Dicks in the 6th district and Jim McDermott in the 7th, are depressingly safe. Only two of the four Republican seats are secure -- Rep. Doc Hastings in the 4th and Rep. Jennifer Dunn in the 8th. As a result of GOP Rep. Jack Metcalf's retirement, the 2nd district is open and vulnerable; the Democrat and Republican candidates were dead even in this week's primary. In the 5th district, Rep. George Nethercutt -- the nation's most notorious term-limits pledge-breaker -- pulled in a measly 45.5 percent of votes cast. As a sign of growing discontent with the Republicans' broken promises and abandonment of fiscal conservatism, the Libertarian Party made an impressive showing statewide and advanced candidates in all nine House races and the Senate race. One glimmer of sunshine for the GOP was an end-of-summer rally in which talk-show giant Rush Limbaugh endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate John Carlson. More than 40,000 people turned out. But Beltway strategists and the Bush campaign, which has poured more than $2.5 million into TV advertising in Washington state, can't rely on their votes in November. Talking about conservative principles is one thing. Abiding by them in Washington, D.C., has turned out to be far more difficult than the fading revolutionaries imagined.