Rob McKenna finds a path to Obama voters

Numbers alone show that the Republican candidate is picking up support from many Obama voters in a very Democratic state. Suburban voters are less likely to pay attention to ideology and more attuned to his education messages.
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Rob McKenna during an appearance on KCTS with Enrique Cerna

Numbers alone show that the Republican candidate is picking up support from many Obama voters in a very Democratic state. Suburban voters are less likely to pay attention to ideology and more attuned to his education messages.

For the most part, Seattle liberals see a disconnect when it comes to swing voters. How could a pretty reliably blue state split its vote between progressive Democrat Barack Obama and Mitt Romney-supporting Republican Rob McKenna?

The inconsistency, ideologically, is clear. One candidate spent his political capital creating Obamacare; the other spent his political capital fighting it in court. One called Paul Ryan's budget plans a "radical" "Trojan Horse" that is "thinly veiled Social Darwinism." The other said of Ryan, "There's no better expert on the federal budget than Representative Ryan."

One supports marriage equality; the other does not.

For the sake of ideological consistency, one might assume that the only choice is for Obama supporters to back liberal Congressman Jay Inslee against McKenna in the race for governor. If that were so, McKenna would be sinking out of sight. But he's not. If recent King 5 polls are correct, Inslee currently leads McKenna by six points in the governor's race (48-42 percent), a good margin. But Obama leads Romney by an astonishing 20 points (56-36). Simple math suggests that there must be a large percentage of voters planning to vote Obama-McKenna.

There are a number of reasons why ideological litmus tests break down on the local level.

One interesting feature of the current gubernatorial campaign is that both candidates are suburban guys —  McKenna from Bellevue, Inslee from Bainbridge Island. McKenna has seen split votes before; that's how he got to be attorney general. Inslee has been in Congress on both sides of the state, at one time representing a predominantly Republican district in Eastern Washington. Both feel comfortable in political Dockers —  giving you a skosh more room ideologically. Suburban Democrats can be more pro-business and a tad more fiscally conservative, Republicans can be a bit more "pro-choice" and less socially conservative.

Washington voters also lean toward non-ideological governors, tending to prefer centrists in either party like Dan Evans, John Spellman, Booth Gardner and Gary Locke over too-liberal candidates (Jim McDermott) or too-conservative ones (Ellen Craswell, John Carlson).

This suits many suburban swing voters who are used to occupying a kind of middle ground, don't care much about party, but do about results. It's also the reason the suburbs tend to produce party-flippers (Kirkland's Bill Finkbeiner, Medina's Rodney Tom, and Mercer Island's Fred Jarett come to mind).

In areas like the Eastside which are undergoing a kind of ideological shifting —  from red to blue — it shouldn't be surprising that individual voters too are undergoing slow transformations and are in the purple zone. They tend to value pragmatism over purity.

Another reason is that voters are able to differentiate between national and state issues, and candidate temperaments. No one is expecting McKenna to run the Pentagon or conduct foreign policy. He has a track record of running the AG's office well, a sign of executive ability. Will he get roads built? Will he keep the ferries afloat? Will he get funding for his alma mater, the University of Washington?

He's made education the centerpiece of his campaign with a commitment to spending more on it; he's no Craswell. Education, including higher-ed, is a huge suburban priority. Many people live there simply because the schools are often much better.

And many independent voters probably conclude that the smart, well-informed McKenna is better than many of the candidates the state GOP has put up for the office in recent decades, certainly the best candidate since Spellman, elected in 1980 and the last Republican in the governor's mansion. McKenna seems brighter and is more experienced than Dino Rossi, who almost won the first time around, thanks to suburban "Dinocrats."

The Seattle Times editorial page, historically never a place burdened by the hobgoblin of consistency, offers a look inside an Obama-McKenna  mindset (it endorsed both candidates). it is backing Obama without much enthusiasm, its conclusion being that Romney is too much of a gamble, though they never really made that case. In fact, the endorsement read mostly as a slam on Obama save for his being a voice of "reform" in education (meaning pro-charter schools). The endorsement was a litany of his failures, with a pivot at the end: We think he might do better in his second term. Really? It sure didn't sound like it. Apparently the magnetism of Obama combined with the lackluster Romney was enough to pull The Times limply into the president's camp.

In contrast, the edit board was positively enthusiastic about McKenna when it endorsed his candidacy back in June. In addition to having positions more consistent with The Times' desire to "re-set" state government, it was his localness that the board found most appealing. Not that Inslee isn't local. But McKenna's career has been at the county and state level, while Inslee's been back in Washington, D.C. "Inslee has not been here," the edit board wrote. True, it's been a long time since Inslee was in Olympia, but that could be spun as a positive.

That a political career representing local and district interests at the national level somehow makes Inslee unfit for Olympia is bizarre reasoning. Arguably, it's the other way around: Dan Evan famously hated being a U.S. Senator, but had been a terrific governor. In any case, the real reason The Times likes McKenna is they believe he will cut state programs and pensions drastically, and not raise taxes. Sounds like the state version of Romney-Ryan. I have the sense that The Times might have swooned if the national GOP ticket had been reversed.

But the "we-know-McKenna" factor is powerful. He's held statewide office, he has lots of friends on editorial boards, in the media, and elsewhere who respect him. And his ads tend to emphasize that he's a great dad, and a likable guy. Which is why Inslee's supporters have hit McKenna hard with a "you're-not-who-you-say-you-are" campaign: A reformer? A moderate? A nice guy? Think again. Open your eyes, open your laptop and see a right-wing lapdog.

The pro-Inslee argument isn't simply to wrap the millstone of Romney-Ryan around McKenna's neck, but to remind people how out of step McKenna has been with the majority of Washington voters. That is why they remind us that he backed George W. Bush, and was co-chair of the McCain-Palin campaign. Emphasis on Palin.

It's a common practice to raise the demons of national and international issues to scare the voters. In principle, it's a legitimate practice because the local is often national, in ways that sometimes inconvenience Republicans here.

Rossi, for example, kept trying to push his anti-abortion views off the table by saying things were settled at the national level. But as we've learned, those rights are not secure. Even the once pro-choice Romney wants to see Roe vs. Wade go down, and many states are working hard on anti-abortion agendas. Governors can make a difference.

Health care is another area, and a legit one to draw contrasts.

Inslee has argued that he will do a better job of implementing Obamacare at the state level, and it's difficult to disagree since McKenna tried to kill it in the crib. Other "local" issues have a way of working their way up to national ones too, like state-level marriage equality and pot legalization. GOP governors and legislatures are at the forefront national of efforts to roll back health care, eliminate abortion rights, suppress voter turnout.

Not all of these issues are big factors in Washington's governor's race, but while swing voters might tend to dismiss consistency and ideology, it does in fact matter.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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