OLYMPIA - Even with his advancement to November's general election all but assured, U.S. Senate candidate Dino Rossi has moved noticeably to the right in recent weeks - a shift that has Democrats salivating as they try to bolster endangered incumbent Patty Murray.
Late last month, Rossi began unveiling a string of positions and endorsements that sketch a more conservative candidate than the fiscal hawk who ran two competitive races for governor in the past decade.
The parade includes endorsements from the anti-gay and religious conservative Family Research Council, the tea party-inspired group FreedomWorks and two of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans, South Carolina’s Jim DeMint and Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn.
Rossi also has signed the tea party-backed “Contract From America,” which favors a flat income tax, more oil exploration and strict limits on federal spending. He supports total repeal of the Obama administration’s health care bill, and recently called for repeal of Congress’ regulatory crackdown on Wall Street.
In a state with plenty of independent voters who lean Democratic, particularly on social issues, some of those stances could hurt Rossi in November. Murray already has pounced, running an attack ad that says Rossi’s opposition to financial regulation makes him “the best friend Wall Street and big banks can buy.”
She and her allies are certain to pound at Rossi’s conservative positions through the fall, a strategy befitting an 18-year incumbent who has polled below 50 percent during this campaign season.
“This election is going to come down to one question: Who is on your side?” said Murray spokeswoman Julie Edwards. “Dino Rossi is taking extreme positions in his effort to curry favor with the far right. This is the real Dino Rossi.”
With Washington’s nonpartisan primary coming up Tuesday, the race is already getting plenty of focus from both sides — any Republican hopes of taking control of the Senate rest, in part, on a Rossi victory in November.
So why would Rossi give Democrats the ammunition? Rossi’s campaign declined to engage such a question, saying he hasn’t changed.
An obvious answer is that he’s trying to shore up the Republican base, which has been energized by small-government activists this year. But Rossi’s also probably betting that, should an anti-Democratic groundswell grow big enough to sweep him into office, those conservative positions won’t matter so much.
“How does Patty Murray survive the Republican tidal wave that’s coming? That’s really the issue here,” said Chris Vance, a public affairs consultant and former state GOP chairman. “All Dino has to do is be on the ballot and he could win.”
Rossi, a former state senator and real estate investor, has never faced a serious primary threat. But this year’s energized conservative base apparently means Rossi doesn’t feel comfortable simply cruising to the general election, as he did in the 2008 governor’s race.
Pressing the issue is Clint Didier, a feisty high school football coach, farmer and former NFL tight end who refused to clear the field for Rossi. Although Didier says he’d support Rossi in the general election, he’s spent the past few months calling Rossi an establishment favorite and a lightweight conservative.
Rossi, however, points out that he’s been attacked for either being too conservative or not conservative enough this primary season, depending on the critic’s point of view.
“Dino welcomes the support of anyone who’s ready to work in good faith to change the direction the country is headed by putting an end to trillion-dollar budget deficits, corporate bailouts and government waste,” spokeswoman Jennifer Morris said.