Our Sponsors:

Read more »

Our Members

Many thanks to Tina Podlodowski and Betsy Bertiaux some of our many supporters.

ALL MEMBERS »

The unbearable lightness of Dino Rossi

Tricky suburban balancing act, rhetoric that undercut his own strengths, and a résumé that never grew helped to doom Rossi in his third statewide run.

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.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Tue, Nov 9, 8:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Liberal senator Alan Cranston served California for almost a quarter-century, not because he was a great senator, but because the California Republicans consistently nominated right-wing nut jobs to run against him. The tradition continues. This year, the Republicans nominated Carly Fiorina, who was endorsed by Sarah Palin, over Tom Campbell, an intelligent, moderate Republican who would have trounced the widely disliked Barbara Boxer. The Republicans have no one to blame but themselves for not only their ideological purity, but also for the influx of even-further-right-wing nut jobs of the Tea Party. When you constantly isolate, offend, and jettison the moderates in your party, this is what you end up with.

Don't expect anything different in Washington.

Posted Tue, Nov 9, 9:37 a.m. Inappropriate

King County "progressives" would vote for a yellow dog if it had a "D" behind its name. I don't know that any Republican candidate can break through such a dogmattic (get it?) voting block. I wonder how big the deficit has to be before a significant chunk of them look critically at their assumptions.

BlueLight

Posted Tue, Nov 9, 9:50 a.m. Inappropriate

If Dino couldn't win this year, when just about anyone except the true wingnuts (O'Donnell, Miller, Angle) rode the anti-incumbent wave to victory, I think we can safely assume he's done as a statewide candidate.

bigyaz

Posted Tue, Nov 9, 10:04 a.m. Inappropriate

"  Tricky suburban balancing act, rhetoric that undercut his own strengths, and a résumé that never grew..."

The reason it's hard to make a résumé grow is that nobody is quite sure how large it might get. Beyond that, I'm sort of hoping that Dino will turn into our very own Harold Stassen: the Republicans wheel him out for every election, hopes rise that this finally will be his break-through year, and alas he hits the wall just a little short of the goal. There is a comforting ritual certainty to that scenario that provides reassurance in these glum and perilous times.

woofer

Posted Tue, Nov 9, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Rossi's early strategy of criticizing Murray for bringing home "pork" doomed him. Although he carefully avoided that tactic almost immediately after he launched it, he had already frightened off too many voters (including business-type Republicans) who were worried he might mean it.

tabb7118

Posted Tue, Nov 9, 10:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Wow, this reads like an obit.

Rossi was hindered by his résumé in another way--his livelihood. He has spent recent years running seminars on how to make money off of home foreclosures. He is making his fortune off of the backs of less fortunate Washingtonians who are loosing their homes.

andy

Posted Tue, Nov 9, 4:59 p.m. Inappropriate

King County "progressives" would vote for a yellow dog if it had a "D" behind its name. I don't know that any Republican candidate can break through such a dogmattic (get it?) voting block.

The key to the GOP winning is to get more than 40% of the King County vote, not winning King County. In 2004, Gregoire got 57% of the King County vote. This year, Murray got 62%.

You crack 40%, then the Eastern Washington "reformers" who would vote for a yellow dog if it had an "R" behind its name can carry you to victory. But until the GOP finds the 5% of King County they need, this is how elections will keep playing out.

One thing Knute doesn't mention that I found interesting: In the Puget Sound area, Rossi improved on 2008 by at least 2% in every county (even King) save two: Snohomish and Kitsap. In those two, he made no new inroads.

Boeing, IIRC, endorsed Murray, and Murray was a big supporter of the VA. Maybe that was all she needed.

wnalyd

Posted Tue, Nov 9, 6:12 p.m. Inappropriate

If I were a GOP, I would now want some new blood in the party, including a new state chair and also a lovely catered "Farewell to Politics" party for Dino. Since I am a Dem, I'm happy to see Mr. Berger's passive-agressive encouragement for Mr. Rossi to "fatten up" his resume and perhaps try again in the future. Yes, Dino, please...go out and make a few more million and maybe do some more of those seminars about how to make money from real estate forclosures, and I'm SURE the folks of King County will then all warm up to your smarmy charms. And we promise never to ask any of those pesky "social issue" questions for which your honest answers might reveal you to be not-so-moderate.

TaylorB1

Posted Tue, Nov 9, 8:14 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm not encouraging Dino to run again, and I doubt he would read the piece as encouragement, passive aggressive or otherwise. What I am pointing out is that he's had three losing tries as an empty suit, so unless the guy's got something more to add next time, forget it. I also have little doubt that Dino will be adding to his resume if he's shown no interest thus far. I am interested to note some Republicans are responding to this election as a lost opportunity here in Washington and want to see the party be more aggressively conservative. Some want to dump state party chair (and McKenna pal) Luke Esser and replace him with former hot-talk radio host Kirby Wilbur. If that's the GOP response, I think it bodes well for the Dems.

Posted Wed, Nov 10, 8:54 a.m. Inappropriate

The problem within the state GOP is that its base is small and likely not growing. It's hidebound idealogies have limited the choices of candidates acceptable to its base and the willingness to donate money to finance
elections. At the same time, voter demographics are changing and the GOP is losing the opportunity to make an appeal to these voters and bring them
into the party. At some point, the state GOP leadership will have to debate the notion of what is important to them as a party, and what will be required of them to field credible candidates with broad, competitive appeal. This may require re-evaluation and compromise on a number of the party's core beliefs. I suspect there are elements within the state GOP who are completely fed up with losing, and it would be reasonable to suggest their voices are eventually going to be heard.

Bella

Posted Wed, Nov 10, 11:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Patty Murray's done a lot for Washington and a lot for veterans. Tough white guys I know respect her because of that, made it hard for Dino Rossi to peel them away from her. Also, he talked a lot about cuts but never got specific beyond the talking points which works for Tim Eyman but not for actual politicians.

DannyK

Posted Wed, Nov 10, 4:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Vance wrote an obit for the Republican party in Washington State in the comments section on his analysis of the election. Dino and his ilk will never win a statewide election due to the radical nature of the base which eliminates moderates at the primary, and the demographics of the state which tend to vote Center or Left.

And then there was that piece in the Seattle Times which said that women overwhelmingly rejected Dino and the conservative viewpoint towards women's reproductive rights.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Nov 11, 9:25 a.m. Inappropriate

I can't help but think that Rossi's biggest mistake was in challenging the close 2004 election. Rather than graciously accepting defeat in an election, which was overseen by a Republican Secretary of State, and coming back for a rematch he chose to cry foul and engage in a lengthy court battle. Even after a conservative Chelan county judge said the state GOP had no case they continue to scream fraud. This only made Rossi look like a sore looser who couldn't be trusted. As others have said Washington is a fairly "purple" state, with Seattle's urban liberals being evenly matched with the rest of the state's rural conservatives. All state-wide elections are pretty much decided in the Suburbs and Exurbs of King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. There you will find a mix of center to center-right fiscal beliefs and center to center-left social beliefs. Until the state GOP stops scaring those voters into the arms of the Democrats they are destined to loose. Even out in Ballard I know a fair number of moderates (at least by Seattle standards) including myself who voted for Rob McKenna based on some of his common sense approaches to law enforcement. (e.g. emphasizing treatment over conviction for non-violent drug offenders) But his decision to fight the recent health care bill has insured that we won't be voting for him again.

normfox

Posted Thu, Nov 11, 11:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Rossi lost me in the 2008 election with his ideas on transportation. Just dedicate more general fund revenue towards more freeway lanes and all will be solved! I've lived here my whole life and watched a constant stream of roads be filled with more and more traffic. Anybody stupid enough to push such a ridiculously short-sighted idea has no business being in office.

There are a few Republicans out there that get it - Ray LaHood has been pushing for a rebalancing of transportation priorities. Sadly, though, most Republican leaders are content to snipe at his ideas as unrealistic.

Mattle

Posted Fri, Nov 12, 8:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Won't argue any of these other points, but what a great headline.

rjudd

Posted Sat, Nov 13, 7:45 p.m. Inappropriate

The down ticket dems should the Cornyn for backing a proven loser of close races that drew a major GOTV push. Dems should also thank Republican leadership within the state and at the national level for rerunning a cookie cutter establishment candidate for a third loss, holding off a general election look at a competing Republican faction (Tea Party) and still not having a major statewide candidate to run for Senate.
What Republican Congressman could run a race for Senate?
There is plenty of folks that could run for AG, governor, Congress, but not really take that next step, still.

Mr Baker

Posted Sun, Nov 14, 8:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Spealing of the future of the GOP, Berger writes, "hopes center on McKenna. . ." McKenna may, as Mr. Berger claims, be more substantial and more politically saavy than Mr. Rossi but what Berger doesn't say is that McKenna's probably more conservative. McKenna's a smart guy (and personable) but I don't see how he can hide his very conservative ideology. And if the GOP wants to dump Luke Esser, also very conservative, for Kirby Wilbur, I'm tempted to say, "Go for it."
But I also remember the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for."

AJ39

Posted Wed, Nov 17, 12:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Good article and on the money about Rossi's diffidence as a pol. It was perplexing to me that he didn't do anything in the time between that suggested engagement or even ideas about politics. What I most took note of, though, is that you were once a precinct officer for the R's.

A note further, if the R's choose to implode. An opposition that is in all aspects except ideology Bolshevik is not one that can governed with. To me, that fits certains parties to a T.

RobCrowe

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »