Susan Hutchison, the former broadcaster, continues to be miles ahead of the other candidates in polling for the King County Executive race, despite having no experience in public office and a past record of supporting Republicans in a now 2-1 Democratic county. She is preferred by about 41 percent of those polled in a recent KING-5 poll, with the closest Democrat, Dow Constantine, at 12 percent.
The usual explanation/brushoff is to cite the initial fame of a television anchor, plus Hutchison's being the sole woman in a race against four progressive Democrats. But there's more: Hutchison is about the only person in the race with a clear message: Cut costs and clean house, big time. The others have rung changes on ho-hum issues like the best way to do the budget and whether people at the county are overpaid. The debate du jour is whether to blame the state for underfunding the county or the county for blowing through all the dollars it could find, therefore turning off the Legislature. (Answer: both of the above.)
It's hard to see how this debate among the Democrats is cutting through the summer apathy and the cruelly early primary (August 18). The Democrats are further constrained from truly flaying the county's record because popular Democrat Ron Sims would get the blame, not to mention the enablers on the County Council, two of whom are running to replace Sims (now speechifying in Obama's HUD). It doesn't help at all that Sims engineered his replacement, Kurt Triplett, who has compounded the problem by floating the suicidal idea of a tax increase on the November ballot. Nothing could play into Hutchison's hands better than such a ballot measure.
The two relative outsiders (if such a term can apply to state legislators), Fred Jarrett and Ross Hunter, get more specific about cuts, but the others soon embrace their points, sorta. The crowded race means each of the paired Democrats steps on the other guy's lines, resulting in a blurred image of a Ross Jarrett and a Dow Phillips.
Jarrett, I must say, has run an admirable race, full of specifics, transparency, and excellent ideas in the fine old good-government tradition we once admired. But the polls would indicate nobody is listening (or sending many contributions). Still, I hope he's our next deputy mayor.
Compared to Hutchison, a true outsider, these Democrats all come off as card-carrying members of the government class, beholden to the public-sector unions, and spendy members of the permanent majority. Hutchison emphasizes her difference by rarely showing up for debates — making her few appearances into maximum media events. She also has been haughtily stiffing the media, which tactic always plays well with her Republican base and some business and developer interests, who regard the media as a branch of the Democratic Party. If Sarah Palin hadn't given this kind of diss-the-media tactic a temporary smudge, Hutchison would probably be even farther ahead.
Only one of the Democrats, Dow Constantine, has attacked Hutchison, daring her to make clear her stands on divisive social issues like abortion. This may have helped boost Constantine, though it cuts against his image of Obama-like cool, but it probably helped Hutchison more. She quickly portrayed herself as unfairly attacked by the politicians, ganging up on a woman and an outsider, letting her make her points about being nonpartisan and a fresh-blood problem solver.
One last reason that I think she will be tough to beat, unless she truly stumbles from her profound lack of political experience (a major risk), is that she will be a protest candidate — against spending sprees, against comfortable government salaries in tough times, against our all-Democrat governments, against the lousy economy, and even against Obama's big fancy risky programs that are starting to make independents nervous. King County is a safe place to indulge in a protest vote, since the government is so peripheral. (It's different in the Seattle Mayor's race, which is high-stakes and where there is no Republican.)
By the time the Democrats wake up to all these factors (and I haven't even mentioned Hutchison's mediagenic qualities and great hair), it could be too late.