The good thing about Dino Rossi is that in Washington's hard-right Republican Party, he comes across as a reasonable moderate, a suburban dad who makes his money in real estate and has one toe in the Mad Men era. Rossi is no Tea Partier, no angry FOX-fueled bully.
Conservative, yes, but a neighbor you might like to have over to a barbecue. His original political base was Issaquah, his electability hinged on swing voters in the suburban crescent. If he wasn't going to win hearts and minds in Seattle, sprawling Pierce County would do.
The politics of the suburbs happen on multiple levels: Don't be fooled by developments and look-a-like houses. There's what you see, and then a Twin Peaks underbelly. It's important for candidates to be mainstream, regular middle- and upper-middle class folk who are pragmatic, pro-business, pro-mowed lawns. Republicans tend to come from business; Democrats, especially women, often have had roots in local school parent groups. Few get ahead by challenging reality like they do in Glenn Beckistan.
But there's also a nasty under-current and ex-urban weirdness lurking in the suburban shadow. If smart candidates learn to win by koffee-klatching at the cul de sac or holding bake sales, some also employ direct-mailers and push pollers, rumor mongers, and over-zealous volunteers who destroy road signs or tape razor blades to them. Some of the the nastiest campaign weirdness I've ever seen was in my years watching grassroots Eastside campaigns (especially on the Sammamish Plateau, Rossi's home turf), where vitriol was stealthily distributed by the barrel. Candidates, of course, have to keep their distance and stay above it all because the suburbs are no Chicago: the meanness has to be kept to an undercurrent, out of the mainstream.
Successful candidates manage to harness grassroots party energy, dark and light, yet maintain an aloofness to the gritty realities. Back in the 1990s, I spoke to a group of 41st District Republicans on Mercer Island at the invitation of Rob McKenna, a successful Republican who has managed to leverage genial suburban moderateness into the statewide office of Attorney General.
I expected the Republican faithful in attendance to want to talk about current suburban issues, or at the very least argue about Bill Clinton and whether he was friend or foe of the suburbs. Instead, I was verbally confronted Tea Party-style by people still angry about Nixon's treatment by the press during Watergate 20 years before, and still raging about the conspiracy of fluoridation.
This peek into the window of grassroots GOP county politics (bolstered by other experiences, including my own short stint as a Republican PCO in the early '80s) helped me to understand a kind of contradiction for GOP moderates who want to be elected to statewide office: They have to stand on the shoulders of a base that might be entirely at odds or completely out of touch with any kind of modern or moderate message.
Rossi has been trying his best. In his first and almost successful bid for governor in 2004, he dodged the abortion question and kept specifics vague because what thrilled the base would not attract suburban swing voters, who are mostly pro-choice. Rossi said the abortion question was settled and anyway, as governor, it was out of his purview. It came within less than 200 votes of working.
Republicans angered at that "stolen" election have wanted to get theirs back and ran Rossi again in 2008. Democrats began to attack Rossi as being a false moderate and pointing out that his views were much more conservative than they appeared. He was a mainstream Republican running in a Democratic year. His vagueness in pursuit of independents seemed less charming than willfully opaque.
Rossi has had other difficulties: being tied with bully-boy groups like the Building Industry Association that are the antithesis of moderation. Too, his anti-Olympia rhetoric is at odds with his own performance in Olympia, which was relatively moderate and bipartisan. To appease the Olympia haters he's had to undermine some of his own strengths, which was an insider effectiveness.
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