Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, whose support for the Iraq war has alienated her Democratic base, is in a tight race with Republican challenger Mike McGavick.
One recent poll shows that Mr. McGavick, a former business executive, has moved within eight percentage points of the incumbent Democrat.
Miss Cantwell, who won in a 2,229-vote squeaker in 2000 — and could see her support for a second term siphoned off in the general election by two anti-war candidates — has become one of the GOP’s chief targets in a midterm election battle that could easily cost $30 million.
Until now she has been running an under-the-radar campaign, raising a substantial war chest, with $5.7 million cash on hand, betting on the power of incumbency in a heavily Democratic state where her party controls the governorship, Legislature and eight of its 11-member delegation in Congress.
But Mr. McGavick, the former chief executive of Safeco who is making his first try for elective office, has been running an unusual campaign that is focused on growing public disapproval over the political bickering and legislative stalemate in the nation’s capital and Miss Cantwell’s reputation as a fierce partisan.
“I think my message is taking hold. People here do not want their lawmakers going back to Washington to call each other names and not solving problems,” Mr. McGavick said in an interview this week.
“What we see is an incumbent who is very partisan and very aggressive politically. I don’t think people in Washington state want to be represented that way. At some point, this election is going to be about the incumbent, and every incumbent is going to be held to account,” he said. “They are part of the problem.”
Recent polls suggest Mr. McGavick’s message is resonating with voters. A Zogby poll at the end of last month showed him trailing the senator by just seven percentage points. A Rasmussen poll in the first week of this month showed Miss Cantwell leading 48 percent to 40 percent. The poll was “the third in a row in which the incumbent has lost a percentage point of support. And it’s the second poll in a row showing her at less than 50 percent support,” Rasmussen reported.
Part of Miss Cantwell’s slide is due to her support for the Iraq war in a state with a large constituency of anti-war activists who turned out to loudly boo her at a recent campaign event in Seattle. A poll of 800 likely voters in the state by the Republican Strategic Vision group this week showed that 55 percent favored “an immediate withdrawal” from Iraq.
She will be opposed in the general election by at least two other candidates: Bruce Guthrie of the Libertarian Party and Aaron Dixon of the Green Party, both of whom are calling for a U.S. pullout.
But Miss Cantwell defends her votes for the war and subsequent funding bills to pay for it, saying that she will make her case for it in the campaign. “I’m fighting to get the Iraqi people on their feet and get our troops home,” she told the Seattle Times last week.
Mr. McGavick also thinks the U.S. should remain in Iraq until its job is finished. “It would be a terrible mistake to have started a war, but then leave a terrible mess behind. The senator and I agree on Iraq.”
The Republican challenger has articulated a small-government message, backing President Bush’s tax cuts and supporting curbs on federal spending. Illegal immigration is also a big issue with voters, he says.
“By far the most important job is securing the borders with whatever it takes,” Mr. McGavick said. “Then you need a flexible guest-worker program, and you have to have meaningful punishment for breaking our immigration laws with a path to citizenship where they pay a penalty and go to the back of the line.”