Campaign 2012: It's the values, stupid

Thanks to Mitt Romney, values are creeping up with the economy as election issues. That could be big trouble for Rob McKenna and Republicans in state races.
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Thanks to Mitt Romney, values are creeping up with the economy as election issues. That could be big trouble for Rob McKenna and Republicans in state races.

The conventional wisdom is that this election is about the economy, but in Washington a focus on "values" looks to be helping Democrats.

Democratic candidate for governor Jay Inslee started slow, and was trailing early, but he gained momentum moving into the primary where this week he out-polled his fall opponent, Republican Rob McKenna.

Inslee gained speed after the Supreme Court decision this summer about health care. McKenna was on the losing side of that court decision having joined a suit to challenge the legality of the insurance mandate. When Obamacare was upheld, he tried to salvage a defeat by declaring a partial victory in the court's reasoning on the commerce clause. Still, the loss at the court reminded voters that McKenna was on the wrong side of history on healthcare. Inslee has been telling voters that McKenna's attempt to claim even a small victory was like trying to claim Custer's Last Stand was a win for the cavalry. Obamacare lives, despite McKenna's efforts to undo it in court.

That has given new oomph to Inslee's stump speech, in which he draws on values to draw distinctions between himself and McKenna. Inslee says that electing McKenna would be akin to hiring a guy who tried to demolish your house to remodel it. Inslee is the guy who believes in implementing healthcare reform at the state level. Inslee says he is the candidate who doesn't believe in denying health insurance to breast cancer survivors. When you put it that way, the message resonates. This is not a legalistic issue of differences in policy, it's about values. It's about life and death. It's about who is on your side in the crunch.

Likewise McKenna has rearranged the Republican playbook in an interesting way. Instead of leading on the economy, or law and order, or an anti-government platform, McKenna instead has put education top on his priority list. He's played against the Tea Party type by putting out a plan whereby the state will put more money into education, especially higher education.

It's a far cry from former GOP gubernatorial standard bearer Ellen Craswell who in 1996 suggested selling off the state's universities. McKenna has seized an issue that conforms with long-standing state values — Washington puts education first in its constitution  —  and education is also an issue which unites voters, especially suburban swing voters. Could it be that Washington's true "education governor," a mantle claimed by many who have gone before, is a Republican?

Both have scrambled to allow little daylight between them on such issues. McKenna has said that if elected, he'll implement Obamacare, unlike some rebellious GOP governors. He's not eager to re-litigate the issue. Inslee has pushed his own higher-ed plan and tiptoed to the right on education reform issues like teacher and principal accountability. While both issues have economic impacts, the real debate is over who is the true believer in what.

At the national level, values are being argued too. Mitt Romney and his aides insist this election is a referendum on Obama's handling of the economy, but they are also having to appease the conservative-values voters on issues like guns and Planned Parenthood. Romney's spokesman claims his man will rule as a "pro-life" president, but that the election is really about jobs. Romney spokesperson Amanda Henneberg has said, "Middle-class families have struggled in the Obama economy, and Mitt Romney has a plan to strengthen the middle class and get our country back on the right track."

But the Democrats are beginning to reframe that economic focus as a values dodge: not only does Romney want to give the rich more money, he's making a war on our bodies.

The attack on Planned Parenthood and the threat to a woman's right to choose, are helping to motivate the Democratic base because it perceives a real threat. In his races for governor, Republican Dino Rossi tried to take his pro-life views off the table by suggesting that it wasn't a local issue in Washington anymore.

But when a presidential candidate vows, as Romney has, to overturn Roe v. Wade and "end" Planned Parenthood, in a progressive state like Washington it will only help Inslee and the down-ballot Democrats who are made stronger by an assault on local values. Even McKenna is more pro-choice than that, as are potential swing voters. Rossi tiptoed on abortion so as not to alarm the Dinocrats, but the Romney campaign is making that harder. Romney wants a re-set, but the values issues already highlighted during the dreadful GOP presidential primary season, which featured Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann as frontrunners, can't be dodged.

The legacy of that is hurting McKenna and might be a drag on GOP Attorney General candidate Reagan Dunn, who ran behind his Democratic opponent Bob Ferguson in the primary. The results suggest that it's possible that instead of the GOP expanding its hold on statewide offices, it could see a rollback in what was supposed to be a "Republican year."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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