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Wash. Senate: Cantwell Challenger Hits the Airwaves

Ask Republicans around Washington (D.C.) to name their  sleeper Senate race of the 2006 cycle, and more often than not they mention the Washington (State) contest.

Why?  Because Republicans think former Safeco Insurance CEO Mike McGavick (R) has the personal charisma -- not to mention the personal wealth -- to become a star candidate. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) is up for her first reelection bid since ousting then Slade Gorton (R) by roughly 2,000 votes out of more than 2.4 million cast in 2000, and the GOP believes the seat can be won back this time around.

The state's political dynamics also make this an intriguing race.  Washington is clearly a blue state on the presidential level -- in 2004 John Kerry carried it by seven points, a two percent improvement over Al Gore's showing in 2000.

But as Republicans are quick to point out, Washington played host in 2004 to the most contentious recount since Florida during and after the 2000 presidential contest. The gubernatorial race between state Attorney General Christine Gregoire (D) and state Sen. Dino Rossi (R) was nip and tuck for weeks after the election with Rossi being declared the governor-elect on Nov. 29. Democrats funded a hand recount; on Dec. 30 Gregoire was declared the winner by 129 votes. Polls in the aftermath of the ordeal showed most voters thought Rossi was the rightful governor. Republicans are hoping that the discontent over that election among the Washington electorate will neutralize the admitted Democratic lean of the district.

McGavick made the first major move in the contest earlier this week when he took to the airwaves with two television ads designed to introduce him to the state's voters.

The somewhat quirky ads -- one 30-second spot and a longer, 60-second version -- feature McGavick speaking to the camera.  The ad begins with McGavick describing how he ran home after accidentally putting a skateboard through a neighbor's window but was forced to go back and apologize by his mother. (Watch the 60-second version at the bottom of this post.)

"Taking responsibility and solving problems," says McGavick. "That's exactly what we need as a nation again."  McGavick adds that America faces "terrible challenges" including the "war, to the deficit to the health care system" but "by coming together we will solve them."

Interestingly, the ads make no mention of either Cantwell or McGavick's party affiliation. The image that frames McGavick for most of the commercial says simply, "Mike McGavick U.S. Senate 2006."

The ads, produced by McGavick media consultant Kim Alfano, cost the campaign approximately $200,000 and are running in the Seattle, Spokane and Yakima media markets, according to knowledgeable GOP and Democratic sources.

McGavick allies claim the ad is an attempt to insulate him from the coming Democratic onslaught.  Rather than let the Cantwell camp define McGavick negatively, GOP strategists want to get out and define their man on their own terms. 

Cantwell supporters call the ad a sign of desperation after what they describe as a disappointing statewide announcement tour last week for McGavick.  Cantwell seems content to hold her fire and stay off the airwaves for the moment.

One thing that McGavick's early ad buy shows is that he appears willing to spend from his own pocket to stay competitive with Cantwell.  At the end of the year, Cantwell had $5 million in the bank compared to $955,000 for McGavick.  Presumably, McGavick wouldn't spend 20 percent of his campaign warchest on ads 40 weeks out from the general election if he didn't plan on raising and donating a considerable amount of money to his effort in the coming weeks and months. To date, McGavick has not made any personal contribution to his campaign.

Cantwell vs. McGavick is shaping up to be a fascinating race. Cantwell is still the favorite given her status as an incumbent and the Democratic tilt of both the state and the national environment. But McGavick's early ad gambit and the specter of the 2004 governor's race give Republicans reasons for optimism.

Safeco Insurance CEO Mike McGavick (R) is hoping to unseat first-term Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) this year in Washington state.  McGavick's campaign started running two television ads this week to introduce the candidate to voters. Above is the 60-second version of the two ads. (Courtesy McGavick campaign)

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 2, 2006; 9:10 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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