Among the nation's political cognoscienti, there is a strong belief that while Republicans have a real shot at taking back the House this year (even if we'll have to work for it), the chances of us taking back the Senate are exceedingly slim. Part of the reason for that is the basic realization that not every incumbent Democratic Senator is Arlen Specter. Indeed, one of the Democratic incumbents that Republicans will likely need to beat in order to regain a majority in the Senate is Washington Senator and #4 in Harry Reid's Democratic leadership in the Senate, Patty Murray-- an entrenched, proudly liberal three-term incumbent from a state that for years has been comfortable Democratic territory and where she first ran as just a "mom in tennis shoes." To be sure, she faces a different set of dynamics than a lot of Democrats will as they run for election or re-election in more purple, or red, states and districts across the country. However, the further we get into 2010, the more obvious it is that Murray is vulnerable.
Like every Democrat, Murray is faced with an increasingly hostile political environment. This morning, new Gallup polling shows that the Democratic Party's image has hit a record low in terms of voter favorability. As it stands, a mere 41 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of the party that dominates both Washington DC and Washington State.
Apparently, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee smells blood in the water, even in Puget Sound, too: See their recent launch of this attack site targeting Dino Rossi, the former gubernatorial candidate and current private citizen who is not at present in the race, but who various polls show leading Murray who, for her part, is heading towards a potentially very bloody election with a mere 43 percent approval rating in February and a slightly worse 42 percent approval rating in March. Here, as across the nation, the numbers tell the story: Murray is vulnerable.
But things could be set to get worse for her. Today, Joel Connelly at the Seattle P-I is dinging the DSCC's oppo-dumping efforts (including via the Rossi attack site), which he evidently sees as equally poisonous to a black widow spider, and as a proverbial political own goal. Connelly seems to compare the DSCC effort to Team Bush's tactics in South Carolina back in 2000, in which John McCain's daughter Bridget was alleged to be the result of an affair with an African-American prostitute (probably one of the scummiest initiatives ever taken in US politics), and Billy Shaheen's effort to inject President Obama's past drug use into the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. Not only does he seem to see it as noxious, he questions the extent to which throwing "mud balls" is even necessary, highlighting Murray's fundraising strength and pointing to a couple of Murray deliverables that she likes to talk up. He finishes by asking the question, "Why does the senator's side need attack dogs, especially ones that bite their own tails?"
It's a question that Washington voters, and political observers and operatives should ask themselves, but not necessarily because the answer is what I conjecture that Connelly's response would be ("they don't"). Rather the answer is that while the DSCC does seem to have scored something of an own goal here, provoking a strong response from Rossi-- who sent a letter to Murray herself, complaining of the attack site and attaching a letter relevant to its subject matter from Washington attorney James Rigby (you can read them here and here*)-- Murray does in fact need attack dogs. The low approval ratings that she, and Democrats generally, are carrying partly explain why. However, so does the fact that her record is attracting scrutiny it rarely gets-- and some of what critics are seizing on is far from positive.
Many readers of this site will already be familiar with Chris Widener's NotPatty.com site (full and immediate disclosure, I helped Widener promote that). However, friend-and-adviser-of-Widener and Washington State Republican Party board member Anthony Welcher points out in an op-ed running at the Washington Times today some other knocks on Murray:
A little-known fact outside the Beltway is this: In Mrs. Murray's 17 years in office, she was the lead sponsor of 234 bills. Only five have been signed into law. Five laws in 17 years. For her $174,000-a-year salary, the voters of Washington get one-third of a bill a year.
... an unnamed Democratic congressman in the state said his polling shows "she's toxic" in his district and he doesn't want her anywhere near him as he runs for re-election.
Making matters even worse for Mrs. Murray are revelations of cozy relationships between the tennis-shoed one and D.C. lobbyists. CNN's Wolf Blitzer recently reported on the connection between campaign contributions from a lobbyist and government funding that seemingly was kicked back to an associate of this lobbyist. At best, these are questionable dealings. At worst, it's "coin-operated representation" in favor of her new lobbyist friends.
That latter point deserves still more scrutiny: While the DSCC has accused Rossi of "dirty deals," according to Open Secrets, the top two industries represented in Murray's donor pool are lawyers and lobbyists. Unless you're running for office in an inside or across-the-beltway congressional district, that's something that's likely to make voters wonder exactly who you're representing-- and instinctively conjecture that it's not them.
And there will be more of this kind of thing that will undoubtedly be pointed out, as the year moves forward.
Make no mistake: While Patty Murray is not the most vulnerable Democratic Senator facing re-election this year, and while she doesn't carry the liabilities of, say, an Alexi Giannoulias, she is vulnerable. 2010 may represent the best shot Republicans have ever had at picking her off. The DSCC is right to be on hair-trigger.
Note: In the interests of disclosure, as mentioned in this post, I did some work with the Chris Widener campaign on efforts to promote NotPatty.com online (that work is not currently ongoing, however). I should also note that my firm, Hynes Communications, consults for various Republican campaigns and committees. The vast majority of such work, in my case, is currently focused on the California Senate race, where I consult for Carly Fiorina.
* updated 6:28PM ET on April 9, 2010 to reflect my current understanding that James Rigby is not Dino Rossi's lawyer. Thanks to the reader who alerted me to this earlier; it seems I misconstrued an email I received attaching both letters. [intro]