Washington's 'jungle primary': Trouble ahead for Patty Murray?

The Washington Senate seat was the marquee contest of Tuesday’s primaries. The incumbent, Patty Murray, will face Republican businessman Dino Rossi in the fall.

Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times/AP photo
U.S. Senator Patty Murray claps during speeches at a primary night watch party at the People for Patty Murray campaign headquarters Aug. 17, in Seattle, Wash.

Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington and her top challenger, Republican businessman Dino Rossi, topped the state’s primary results Tuesday, setting the stage for one of America’s most closely watched Senate races this fall.

Senator Murray, trying for her fourth term, leads the vote count at 46 percent, with 59 percent of ballots counted. Former state Senator Rossi is second with 34 percent of the vote. They competed head to head in a “jungle primary” – with only the top two finishers qualified to compete in November. But the relatively low percentages do not necessarily portend trouble for either. Both had competition within their own parties, and their respective party ranks are expected to close around each.

But the incumbent, Murray, faces a political landscape markedly different from the one in her previous two reelection campaigns. Federal spending and debt are fueling voter anger across the country, and Murray’s record of bringing federal dollars to home-state projects may not serve her as well this year as it has in the past.

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In Tuesday’s other primary, in Wyoming, former US Attorney Matt Mead won the closely contested Republican gubernatorial contest, defeating the Sarah Palin-backed state auditor, Rita Meyer, by just 700 votes, for a margin of 28.7 percent to 28.1 percent. Two other GOP candidates also scored in the double digits, which is why the percentages were so low. Mr. Mead is favored against the Democratic nominee, Leslie Petersen, former state Democratic Party chair, to replace the term-limited Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) in November.

Another Palin endorsee, former Washington Redskin Clint Didier, came in a distant third with 12 percent in the Washington Senate primary. But analysts warn against reading too much, negative or positive, into the role of endorsements, including those of the former Alaska governor. Though Palin endorsements win headlines for a candidate and at times are seen as part of the winning formula – as with South Carolina GOP gubernatorial nominee Nikki Haley – just as often the local dynamic and the attributes (and financing) of the candidates themselves are more important.

In the case of Mead, a first-time candidate, his own money and donations from family constituted the lion’s share of his $1.1 million campaign war chest, according to Politico. Those donations, Mead says, were necessary to build statewide name recognition against better-known adversaries.

In the marquee contest of Tuesday’s primaries – the Washington Senate seat – both parties highlighted the low numbers of the opposition.

“As the final results are tallied, the fact that an 18-year incumbent from a blue state who serves as a member of Senate leadership is struggling to get above 50 percent in an open primary speaks volumes about the current political environment in Washington State, and it speaks volumes about the opportunity that Republicans have this November with Dino Rossi as our party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate,” Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement.

The Democrats highlighted Murray’s ability to bring home the bacon and attacked Rossi as someone who is “committed to returning to the failed economic policies of the past.”

“Patty Murray has a strong record of delivering for every corner of the state, and continues to focus everyday on creating jobs and strengthening Washington’s middle class,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, who is chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Dino Rossi would do more to help protect the big banks, Wall Street, the oil companies, and the insurance companies – all at the expense of Washington’s middle class.”

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