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Friday, May 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Nethercutt launches longshot U.S. Senate campaign
By Jim Brunner
It's the cautionary tale of Willie Stark, a small-town politician who becomes corrupted as a powerful U.S. senator. But today, as Nethercutt officially kicks off his campaign against Sen. Patty Murray, there is another name to keep in mind Clarence C. Dill, the last politician from east of the Cascades to be elected senator from Washington.
Dill left office in 1934, and some observers say an Eastern Washington politician may never hold a U.S. Senate seat again, though Nethercutt, not surprisingly, disagrees.
"It's a myth," Nethercutt says of the notion that Eastern Washingtonians can't win statewide, a theory sometimes called the "Cascade Curtain." "The people of the state of Washington will vote for the candidate they like. It's not an east or west choice."
"I'm your neighbor," Nethercutt often tells Seattle-area crowds. His house in Spokane is rented out, and he's spending less and less time at his place in Virginia. This year, home is where the voters are.
The change of address is a matter of political necessity: More registered voters live in King County alone (1 million) than in all 20 counties of Eastern Washington (646,000).
That helps explain why right now, there isn't a single statewide elected official from governor to schools superintendent to the nine members of the state Supreme Court from Eastern Washington.
"There is a real concern about being from Eastern Washington and not having the support of friends, donors and associates that you might have if you lived in Seattle or Tacoma," said Guy, who retired in 2000.
When it came to finding a challenger for Murray this year, the Republican Party first pinned its hopes on Bellevue Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn. After she bowed out, Nethercutt announced his candidacy.
Jennifer Duffy, an editor at The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that analyzes races across the country, said Dunn would have entered the race as an underdog, but her geographical base would have started her off in a better position.
"It's hard to be weighed down with the notion of coming from the eastern part of the state," Duffy said.
Nethercutt and his supporters like to point out he's confounded expectations before. He was an unknown Spokane attorney in 1994 when he beat Tom Foley, then speaker of the House. It was the first time a sitting speaker had been defeated since 1860, and it gave Nethercutt the reputation as a giant-slayer.
And this year, Nethercutt will benefit from strong backing of the White House and top national Republican leadership. That means he will have enough money and name recognition by Election Day to overcome any geographical disadvantage, supporters say.
"He's shown he can be a credible candidate, that he can raise money and that he has the support of donors and his party base," said Randy Pepple, a veteran Republican strategist.
But at the same time, some of Nethercutt's positions on issues which go over well in the 5th District may be a harder sell statewide.
While Republican leaders portray him as a moderate, Nethercutt is highly rated by conservative groups. Abortion foes rated his voting record last year a perfect 100 percent; the Christian Coalition rated him 84 percent.
Murray has already seized on Nethercutt's stands on social issues in fund-raising letters that label him "out of touch" with the majority of the state.
Nethercutt, for his part, has been highlighting other stands, such as his support for caps on jury damage awards in medical-malpractice lawsuits. Murray has helped block Senate Republican efforts to bring such legislation to a vote.
Meanwhile, Nethercutt has been working hard to become better known in the Puget Sound area. Even at Republican events, he can still stroll through the room without attracting a crowd. At the King County Republicans convention this month, Nethercutt ended his speech with a plea for people to put his bumper stickers on their cars.
"Nethercutt has two mountains to climb. He's got to get known over here, and then he's got to get people to like him," said pollster Stuart Elway.
Nethercutt faces a primary opponent in Reed Davis, former chairman of the King County Republicans, who is also running a longshot campaign for the party's nomination.
Recent history shows how the concentration of Puget Sound voters can carry an election.
Sen. Maria Cantwell beat Slade Gorton in 2000 by winning just five of the state's 39 counties. In that race, three out of every four votes were cast west of the Cascades. Gorton carried every county in Eastern Washington, by an average of 65 percent, but that support was drowned out by a disastrous showing in King County.
Gorton's experience is instructive.
With his anti-Seattle-establishment rhetoric, Gorton had never carried King County, with the exception of his first Senate-race victory over Warren Magnuson in 1980. But Gorton usually did well enough to get by with his huge margins elsewhere.
Gorton won 45 percent of the King County vote against Mike Lowry in 1988, and 48 percent in defeating Ron Sims in 1994. But in 2000, Gorton's support in King County slid to 39 percent a 150,000 vote deficit that sealed his defeat.
Jim Keough, a Republican consultant and former Gorton state political director, said Nethercutt will need to aim for 42 or 43 percent of the vote in King County in order to have a shot this year.
"He's got a lot of work to do," Keough said.
Stanley Greenberg, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, notes in his book "The Two Americas" that the high-tech boom of the '90s helped transform the suburbs on the east side of Lake Washington into fertile ground for Democrats.
In the Bellevue-Kirkland-Redmond area, support for the Democratic presidential candidate has risen in each election since 1992, Greenberg noted. King County as a whole showed greater support for Al Gore in 2000 (60 percent) than for Bill Clinton in 1992 (50.2 percent).
However, Republicans note that by starting off relatively unknown, Nethercutt has one advantage over Gorton.
"He's got a clean slate. He's got the chance to put his mark in the voters' mind about who he is," Keough said.
Nethercutt has already started to do that with an early round of television ads that portray him as a friendly guy. One shows him jogging around Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood, with the Space Needle in the background, while he talks about his support for tax cuts.
Another features his daughter, Meredith, a diabetic, talking about her dad's work as co-founder of the Congressional Diabetes Caucus.
His campaign said this week that those ads have already pushed up his name familiarity and favorable ratings among likely voters. Nethercutt expects 1,500 people today at his kickoff event in Bellevue.
Republicans say Nethercutt's gentlemanly demeanor will endear him to voters on both sides of the state.
"When they get to know George Nethercutt they will support him," said Sen. George Allen, R-Va., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, at a Bellevue news conference last month.
"No one in the world thought he could knock off the speaker of the House. He was outspent two to one. And he won," Allen said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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