After months of speculation, Dino Rossi is finally a candidate for the U.S. Senate. The Rossi candidacy is tremendous news for Republicans for two reasons.
First, it gives the GOP a real shot at winning its first major statewide race (governor or senator) since 1994. Second, a strong campaign at the top of the ticket will help Republicans running for other offices, particularly in terms of bringing Republican voters to the polls.
Republicans have been on a losing streak that surpasses even the struggles of our beloved Seattle Mariners. The GOP has not elected a governor since 1980, and hasn'êt won a Senate election since Slade Gorton was re-elected in 1994.
Yet in most cycles the GOP has fielded credible candidates for these offices, and there have been some very close calls. The Gorton-Maria Cantwell race in 2000, and the Rossi-Chris Gregoire race in 2004 both were decided by recounts.
This year, Republicans were faced with the prospect of not having a top of the ticket candidate with any statewide name familiarity or the ability to raise significant campaign money. That has all changed.
This race starts out dead even. The most recent poll, the Washington Poll done by the University of Washington, confirms what surveys have shown all year: U.S. Sen. Patty Murray fails to break 50 percent, and the race is very close.
The race now becomes a sprint to November, and the narrative of the campaign is as predictable as a bad Hollywood movie.
The Rossi campaign will focus on national issues, the fact that Murray has been in the Senate for 18 years, the economy, spending and debt, and change.
The Murray campaign will try to put the focus on Rossi, label him as "too extreme," and tout her record of bringing home the bacon like a modern day Warren Magnuson.
National Republican and Democratic groups will do the dirty work and run independent ads that everyone will say they hate — but that will move poll numbers.
And all summer long the other Republicans already in the Senate primary race will gnash their teeth in frustration, while trying to get Rossi to debate them.
In the end I suspect that national events, not clever campaign ads will decide this race. Angst over the economy and health care has created a pro-Republican tide. If that tide persists or strengthens, Rossi is likely to win. If it weakens or recedes, Murray will probably be re-elected. The stock market may decide Rossi's fate, just as it did in 2008.
In the meantime, having Rossi at the top of the ticket will help Republicans running for Congress, the legislature, and county offices. The Rossi campaign and the national Republicans will spend millions on TV commercials, getting out the core Republican message and creating energy. In addition, national Republicans will now likely spend money for a statewide get-out-the-vote campaign of mailings, phone banks, and doorbelling, benefiting all Republicans.
Without Rossi, Republican candidates would have been facing a massive Murray-Democrat TV and get-out-the-vote effort undefended. Now the fight will be even.
The Rossi candidacy is just one more thing that has broken the right way for Republicans this year. Electing a U.S. senator, winning a U.S. House race or two, and picking up a significant number of legislative seats would make Republicans relevant in Washington state again. The GOP has a chance to make a big comeback; but we are still a long way from November.