The very notion that a Republican gubernatorial challenger is competitive with a Democratic incumbent in a decidedly left-of-center state this election year is unusual. Yet, that is the feat Washington state Republican Dino Rossi has accomplished. His campaign offers a blueprint for other Republicans to follow in a challenging electoral environment.
Inspire the grassroots
The lack of enthusiasm for John McCain among GOP activists is well-known nationally, as is to a lesser degree the painfully close 2004 Evergreen State Governor’s contest that ended only after a controversial and contested recount. Thus, while local conservatives may not be inspired by their Presidential choice, they are motivated to work on behalf of a Republican closer to home.
That last point is fueled in part by the late breaking success of Rossi’s 2004 run, in which he chased down the established front-runner’s languid campaign in the closing weeks. Christine Gregoire was the odds-on favorite in the race. Few observers on either side of the aisle predicted a close race a few months before Election Day. Consequently, many Republicans didn’t do all they could to support Rossi’s candidacy – particularly in retrospect. Now, gatherings of the Republican faithful have a palpable enthusiasm to avoid a repeat of the 2004 nail biter.
Be Relentlessly Positive
Rossi came from political obscurity to almost Governor in 2004 by running a campaign infused with his affable, optimistic personality. He maintained a constantly upbeat persona while running against the Democratic status quo in Olympia. Even while criticizing the lack of leadership in the state capital and the missing economic vision in a state lagging the then-unfolding national economic boom, he always appeared more problem-solver than government hater.
This year, even as Washington has avoided the same housing and economic angst affecting other parts of the country, Rossi has continued that positive vision. While never shy about pointing out what has gone wrong the last four years in Olympia, he invariably keeps the focus on what the next Governor can do to improve the state.
Speak to the Issues Voters Care About
Recent election cycles have shown voters in Washington, and especially the greater Seattle area, having little trust in Republicans on issues like education and transportation, even as those topics became top issues in suburbia. Indeed, local Republican legislative candidates have struggled to speak to such policy topics with skill.
In contrast, Rossi came out of the gate last October with a kickoff speech immediately speaking to voter concerns on education and transportation, as well as public safety and the state budget. Since that time he has laid out a more comprehensive transportation plan (the Puget Sound region is the worst metro area in the country for lagging transportation infrastructure). Plans on other issues will be rolled out in coming months.
The key being that the agenda is infused with conservative ideas such as incentives over mandates, opposition to tax increases, supporting merit pay for teachers, etc. At the same time, it speaks directly to state policy topics at the top of voters’ minds - even as the status quo, Democratic establishment has a record of inaction of key issues.
The Fruit Thus Far
The above factors have combined to show Rossi polling within the margin of error in multiple independent surveys; again, an amazing feat in this election cycle. Moreover, Rossi has already surpassed the number of contributors to his 2004 campaign (30,745). Today he announced his 34,000th donor to this year's campaign, 65% of of which didn't give in the previous contest.
Dino Rossi may or may not win this year. He still has to topple a Democratic incumbent in a blue state while swimming against a negative Republcian tide. Yet, his success thus far in even being competitive is a testament to the fact that principled Republicans running smart campaigns can win this year - even in some of the toughtest environments.