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In Washington state, Patty Murray's incumbency cuts both ways

Fix Felicia traveled to Washington State over the weekend and reported on the state's Senate race.

By Felicia Sonmez

ANACORTES, Wash. -- John Adams, 59, a retired fishing and hunting magazine publisher, lived for 15 years in the Seattle suburb of Bothell, the same city where Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) grew up. He's voted for Murray in each of her three races since 1992, when she first won election to the Senate by running as a "mom in tennis shoes" -- a label that Adams says "was as authentic as it ever came."

But now, Adams says he's "doing anything I can to get Patty Murray out of there."

"She has traded in her tennis shoes," Adams said, for the "wing-tips that the lobbyists wear in Washington, D.C. That's the shoes that she wears and listens to," Adams said.

Never mind that Murray's opponent, former state Sen. Dino Rossi (R), was in Washington, D.C., late last week raising money for his Senate bid -- and that every (we repeat, every) candidate for Senate raises money from out of state.

Still, Adams' sentiment is a powerful testament to voters' desire to send a message to longtime incumbents in the nation's capital this fall; as he put it, "cleaning out some of the bad spots in Congress" on Nov. 2.

Polling over the summer showed that the race was in a dead heat, although several polls conducted since then indicate that Murray is pulling ahead, due in part to a series of hard-hitting ads aimed at Rossi's opposition to financial regulatory reform and his record on jobs.

The Washington State Senate race has become a flashpoint in the national fight for Senate control as Republicans recruited Rossi, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2004 and 2008, into the race at the last-minute -- turning a mundane contest into a marquee one.

And, the central issue in the race -- as it is for Senate contests across the country -- is whether Murray is the same person that she was when she was first elected in 1992 and whether her incumbency is ultimately a good thing for her state.

Despite his long resume in politics -- he served in the state Senate before running for governor -- Rossi is painting himself as an outside to politics in the "other Washington" -- hoping to capitalize on voters' dissatisfaction with the status quo in the nation's capital.

"Who here wants to remove Patty Murray's tennis shoes from the U.S. Senate?" Rossi asked a crowd one recent rainy morning in this seaside town two hours north of Seattle -- to loud cheers. "I kind of figured you did. It's about time, too."

In an interview after the rally, Rossi expanded on the insider-outsider dynamic he believes is present in the race. He said Murray is "at the epicenter" of what's wrong in Washington. "She's never had a private-sector job in her adult life," Rossi added. "It doesn't make you evil or bad, but she has a very narrow government-centered view of the world."

But Murray's political longevity cuts both ways. While Rossi was making the case to voters that it was the three-term incumbent's greatest weakness, a day earlier and about 140 miles to the south, Murray was at an Olympia senior center telling a group of about 180 supporters -- about three-quarters of whom were women -- about her accomplishments during her long tenure serving the people of Washington.

Clad in a casual dark blue sweater, faded jeans and white tennis shoes (natch), Murray touted her successful efforts to keep veterans' hospitals in Washington state from being shuttered. (Veterans make up 12.7 percent of the state's population, one of the highest in the nation.) She also highlighted the passage of health care reform and financial regulatory reform and argued that Democrats are the party of fiscal responsibility.

Murray also referenced her unconventional route to the Senate -- even though that route was traveled more than 18 years ago. "I didn't take the normal path," she said, casting herself as just a normal mom who decided to get into politics.

She wrapped up her stump speech by telling the crowd, "I love my country, I love my state. I want to keep working for you."

Asked in an interview after the rally how she deals with running as a longtime incumbent, Murray laughed. "Ask my supporters. I'm doing what I've always done, which is go out and talk to people about what's happening in their lives and what I feel passionate about, and asking for their support."

Murray also said that Rossi would take the country back to Bush-era economic policies. "He was in the state Senate during the Bush years, and the Republicans in our legislature voted to support the president's tax cuts, and he voted to support them, so he's already on record there," she said.

She dismissed Rossi's charges that she's become a Washington insider after 18 years in the nation's capital. "I know this state," Murray said. "I know my families. I know who I fight for. This state is my family, and that's who I'm fighting for."

Among Murray's supporters at the event, the feeling appeared to be mutual.

Ed Cleeves, a 70-year-old Army veteran who said he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder years after returning home from Vietnam, introduced Murray and presented her with a small American flag that he has carried with him for more than four decades.

And as Murray made her way through the crowd in the gymnasium, Mark Brown, a 60-year-old consultant from Olympia, pulled the senator aside and showed her his bright blue tennis shoes.

"I just told her that the advertisement for this program said, 'Wear your tennis shoes,' and that I thought my tennis shoes had the brightest shoelaces in the room," Brown said, laughing. "She's been an amazing senator, and we absolutely love her. Everybody's pulling out all the stops to make sure that this is a race that's successful."

Brown added: "People underestimate her at their own peril."

By Felicia Sonmez  | September 30, 2010; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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