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.

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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.

In this year's campaign against Patty Murray, Rossi tried to walk the careful line again: he had a Tea Party opponent in the primary, which made him again the moderate by comparison, but his anti-Washington rhetoric contrasted with his own record in Olympia in getting bipartisan budget deals and legislation passed. Against corporate handouts? Rossi supported the big Boeing giveaway along with Gregoire and Gary Locke back in his Oly days. Opposed to earmarks? Rossi supported state pork projects now and again because it was pragmatic, the way to get things done. The D.C. reformer was not talking his Olympia walk.

Another problem for Rossi is this was his third statewide campaign in six years, and in his private-sector years of working the real-estate market in between losses he'd done little to fill-out his résumé or fatten his portfolio of service and experience. No appointment in D.C., no major fellowships. The Rossi who lost in 2004 was the Rossi who lost in 2008 was the Rossi who lost in 2010, and his years in the state Senate were that much more remote. Meanwhile, his opponent, the often under-estimated Patty Murray, had been delivering for her constituencies, and even in this anti-incumbent year, Murray had a story to tell that was more than about campaigning and losing and making money in between.

If Rossi lost big in 2008, he was crushed in this year when the political stars should have been aligned because the GOP star was rising nationally. The King County vote doomed him, and he slid in some of his Pugetopolitan swing counties. I think it's because he brought nothing new to the party, no new ideas, no accomplishments, nothing of substance to point to, while Murray brought jobs and pork and increased senatorial stature. Murray didn't win with soaring Obama-style rhetoric about hope, she won because she offered numbers for how many people were teaching or building planes because of her efforts.

The mom in tennis shoes has never forgotten her suburban pragmatism.

And lest we forget, unlike Gregoire, who has been in Olympia long enough to be accurately painted as a creature of it, Murray is a suburban mom who started teaching preschool and served on the Shoreline School Board. She's the classic suburb political creature, not the big-blue-city ideologue. She out-Rossied Rossi because she had what she needed to appeal to the suburbs, and King County came out for her in staggering numbers.

Dino Rossi has been the Great Right Hope of Washington Republicans for three elections now. He might give it another go, but my suggestion would be to wait until he can add more substance and experience: three times the same Rossi is enough.

GOP hopes now shift to the more accomplished and media-savvy Rob McKenna who is widely believed to be after a U.S. Senate seat or the governor's office, and whose suburban success and experience is more substantial than Rossi's. Still, McKenna too will have a rocky ride as any GOP mainstreamer does, standing on the shoulders of a state party that is too small and too conservative for the urban and a majority of the suburban vote. 

It can be done. Think of liberal states like Democratic stronghold Massachusetts with its Republicans governors like William Weld and (the old) Mitt Romney, or the new senator holding the "Kennedy" seat, Scott Brown. But it takes Republicans willing to think and act outside the box, who can jump categories, who are mavericks. Washington isn't so blue that it couldn't work here theoretically, but it's hard to see it happening unless the GOP true-believers can content themselves with half a loaf from time to time.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.