In Washington State, Has the Ultimate Outsider Become the Ultimate Insider?

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Patty Murray's story is oft-told and thus familiar. After being condescendingly informed that she was just a "mom in tennis shoes" and could not make a difference politically, Murray decided to jump into local politics. Eighteen years ago, she won the Senate seat in Washington State that she is now fiercely defending against Republican challenger Dino Rossi.
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When she first entered the political arena, Murray was like so many of the current crop of outsider citizens-turned-political-candidates. But after 18 years in the Senate, Washington voters will decide whether the ultimate outsider has become the ultimate insider.

This election cycle has had a strong anti-appropriations tilt to it, and Murray, who sits on the influential Appropriations Committee, sensed this mood from the beginning. She did not take this race for granted and, due to the fact that the recession has not hit Washington as hard as it has other areas, Murray's foresight may give her another term.

In many ways, Murray is trying to turn her greatest liability (her reputation for "bringing home the bacon" during this anti-pork election cycle) into a strength. Case in point: When Rossi was non-committal at best about whether the subsidies Airbus receives should be taken into account when the Air Force decides on awarding its tanker contracts, Murray saw blood and pounced. She accused Rossi of not caring about an important issue affecting jobs in Washington. She hinted that Rossi, after having received money from a political action committee run by Sen. Richard Shelby, an Airbus proponent, was putting outside interests before the state's. Rossi clarified his statement, of course, but not before Murray's jabs had landed.

Murray also cites the $7 million in ferry grants she brought back to Washington as proof that voters need to send her back to the Senate to work for them. When Murray helped authorize nearly $60 million in ferry grants, she assumed the department of transportation would fund some of Washington's projects. When it didn't (initially awarding only $750,000), Murray strong-armed Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood into awarding $7 million for Washington's ferry system. Murray supporters call her the "ferry godmother" and cite this incident as evidence of her effective advocacy for Washington and its interests, something the state will lose if it elects Rossi.

Murray's opponents, however, think of her as a pork godmother who has gone Washington on them. And that's the image Rossi is trying to hammer home in the final days of his campaign. Rossi's best bet is to tie Murray to national Democrats and claim that together they are recklessly spending borrowed money and putting the country in fiscal peril. Rossi, who narrowly lost the last two gubernatorial contests in which he's run, has a core group of supporters that he can build upon.

Sensing the importance of this race, Democratic heavyweights such as the Obamas and Bill Clinton are lobbying for Murray and appearing in Washington on her behalf. Outside Republican groups are spending heavily on Rossi. Though polling is difficult due to the mail-in system of voting Washington employees, Murray seemed  to be pulling ahead last week, but polls this week have showed a tie.
 
This race, like so many others this cycle, may represent how fed up voters are with politicians. If Murray's constituents like the projects she has brought back to Washington, they'll keep her in office. If the anti-appropriation and anti-pork sentiment is so high that voters reject even a candidate who hands them such projects, it may be a sign of a monster national tidal wave for the GOP. It would also mean the GOP would probably end up controlling the Senate.
 

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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