Dino vs. Didier: closer than you might think

If the Tea Party is going to make itself felt in this state, it might be in the Clint Didier race for the U.S. Senate.
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Clint Didier, candidate for U.S. Senate

If the Tea Party is going to make itself felt in this state, it might be in the Clint Didier race for the U.S. Senate.

Is the Tea Party going to be a factor in Washington's elections this year? It's hard to tell, given the scoffing, dismissive coverage by Seattle media and the seemingly insurmountable money advantages that incumbents such as Sen. Patty Murray enjoy. But let's take a look at the Clint Didier candidacy.

Didier is the former NFL tight end and Eastern Washington farmer (from Eltopia) who's running against Dino Rossi for the GOP nomination against Murray. He has only a modest war chest, having raised $570,000 to Rossi's $1.4 million and Murray's $11 million by June 30. He's unknown. He has Ron Paul and Sarah Palin endorsements hanging from his neck. (Palin's pitch: "This selfless, inspiring, commonsense constitutional conservative will help put our country on the right track.") He's inexperienced. He describes himself as a Tea Party activist, and he's also the kind of rough-hewn libertarian challenger that has been giving establishment candidates fits in states such as Kentucky, Arkansas, and Nevada.

Might he surprise Dino in the August 17 primary? According to one GOP source, Didier is getting only about 5 percent of the vote in three polls. On the other hand, a Rasmussen poll in mid July had Didier tied with Rossi in matchups against Sen. Murray, with each Republican getting 48 percent of the vote against Murray's 45. (Another GOP challenger, businessman Paul Akers, was rated 41-46 against Murray.) As for Didier's appeal to unaffiliated, independent voters, Rossi and Didier both lead Murray by about two-to-one. Hmm.

Another reason to keep an eye on Didier is state voting history. Put together generic conservative voters with a good Republican turnout, and these primaries often pick the most conservative candidate, not the nice-guy, country-club moderate like Dino. For instance, in 1998, when moderate Seattle lawyer Chris Bayley sought the Republican nomination to challenge Sen. Murray, he came in a bad second to Linda Smith.

Finally, how well is Dino Rossi doing? In a year when conservatives are fired up, Rossi is anything but. He dawdled about getting into the race and has run a vapid campaign so far, apparently wanting to coast through the primary without spending much or offending anybody. His risk is that moderate independents will vote for Murray in this top-two primary (vote for whoever you prefer), and intense conservatives will opt for Didier and Akers. The danger to Rossi is that he will seem like damaged goods, who twice failed to win a statewide race for governor, a bland challenger, and a man with a small and unenergized base. Didier has the Tea Party base, plus Eastern Washington. (But keep in mind that Rossi has extremely high name recognition in the state, is popular with grass-roots conservatives, and has more national and local money to spend.) As for the Palin endorsement, she has turned out to be more a blessing than a curse for such candidates to date.

The Seattle media have been mostly trying to soften up Rossi, a difficult target to pin things on. Some have been having fun with Didier, catching him out for hypocrisy (he attacks government spending but took agricultural subsidies, about $7,500 a year) and his pro-Arizona stands on immigration. Less attention is paid to his non-interventionist foreign policy, which might have some appeal among liberal doves. And, of course, being ridiculed or patronized by Seattle media is a fine way to get votes outside of Seattle.

Candidates like Didier always tend to look much less serious through the lens of Seattle media, and they sometimes have some surprising strength and fundraising at the end. I suspect he'll lose to Rossi but not by much. In the end, Republicans will probably bet more on the person most likely to defeat Murray, which would be Dino, rather than the one that most punches their anger buttons.


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