YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Nation

In Washington, They Ask: What Other Race?

With no big statewide issues, the presidential election overshadows the Senate campaign. Something similar is happening in California.

September 26, 2004|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

LONGVIEW, Wash. — Paul and Nancy Roesch waited for the pancake-breakfast crowd to thin a bit before they made their move, angling through a cluster of fellow Democrats to shake U.S. Sen. Patty Murray's hand at a local longshoremen's union hall.

The Roesches -- he's a lawyer, she's a retired fifth-grade teacher -- had no burning problems to press their senator about. So they thanked her for 12 years of service, promised to support her November reelection bid and then ambled out into the rain-soaked parking lot near lumber mills and docks on the northern bank of the Columbia River.

The couple are solid Murray supporters, but for this outing each of them wore a single "Kerry for president" button -- a subtle but telling detail about the nature of politics this fall both here in the Northwest and in California.

"The issue we're most interested in," Paul Roesch said, "is the presidential race."

Like California, where the Senate race has been overshadowed by the presidential contest, voters here are treating their Senate race like a September baseball game between two teams with no chance of making the playoffs. Diehard fans are showing up, but their hearts aren't in it.

The oddity is that Murray -- like Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in California -- long has been a target for conservative Republicans. Yet in a potentially pivotal election in which control of both the White House and the Senate are up for grabs, neither Murray nor Boxer is in much danger of losing her seat, due to the dominance of the presidential race, challengers who haven't gained traction and general satisfaction among voters with the incumbents.

So far, neither Republican challenger has found a theme to lead voters away from the incumbent, despite issuing position papers on many issues, including port security here in Washington, Boxer's aversion to war and many big-ticket military programs in California.

"I don't think there are any burning statewide issues," said Lance LeLoup, a political analyst at Washington State University in Pullman, in the rural eastern part of the state. "It's really, in a sense, a parallel of the national campaign -- do you want a Democrat in the Senate, or somebody that's supporting President Bush?"

The similarities between the California and Washington races are striking. Both Murray and Boxer are liberal Democrats who entered politics as outraged mothers and first won Senate elections in 1992's "Year of the Woman," when five women won Senate elections -- the most ever until then.

Both face conservative Republican challengers from the rural parts of their states -- candidates hobbled by low name-recognition in the politically powerful and more liberal coastal regions.

Polls give Republican challengers in both races long odds of success.

A recent Los Angeles Times poll found Boxer with an 18-point lead over former California Secretary of State Bill Jones. In Washington, Republican polls give Murray a 7% lead over challenger Rep. George R. Nethercutt; Democratic polls put the lead at 13 points.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry enjoys a large lead over Bush in California, and has been solidifying his support here in Washington. Neither of the presidential candidates is advertising in California and both have pulled back a bit in Washington as Kerry's lead here has solidified.

"That's what's really driving the race," said Ed Rollins, an advisor to the Republican challengers both here in Washington and in California. "They're not spending any money. Boxer's not spending any money. Kerry's not spending any money."

Neither of the Republican challengers is a fiery speaker likely to shift the playing field by sheer force of words and presence. Jones can be personable one on one but awkward in front of a crowd. He has based his campaign on twin themes: Boxer is too liberal for California and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger needs a Republican in the Senate -- though Schwarzenegger has done little to help him make his case.

Nethercutt speaks with the soothing tones of a concerned counselor -- his points are clear but his passion rarely infectious. His policies closely parallel those of Bush, whose fading support here has moved the state from tossup status to a likely win for Kerry.

"Nethercutt is an articulate guy, and I think he will be certainly a respectable candidate," said LeLoup, the Washington State University analyst. "But I think Patty Murray is going to be pretty tough to beat. People are comfortable with her. She's probably fairly well reflective of where the state is politically right now -- moderate to left-leaning Democrat."

Yet there are key differences between the two elections that offer more hope to Nethercutt than to Jones.

Los Angeles Times Articles