Delivering dollars for Washington state is a point of pride for Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, whose efforts have helped her comfortably win re-election twice. Republicans insist that this November, it will be her downfall.
The GOP is looking to tap into voter angst over the $13 trillion national debt. Tea partiers and fiscal conservatives have pushed to oust lawmakers they say contribute to rampant federal spending that will bankrupt future generations. Murray, once labeled the "Queen of Pork" by the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, is high on their list.
"The idea of dragging home pork is an old-school measurement of a senator," said Republican Dino Rossi, one of Murray's rivals and the most likely to emerge from the state's unusual "top two" primary system Aug. 17. "And right now, with Republicans and Democrats alike doing that, it's bankrupting America. There's nothing in the Constitution that says the job of a senator is bringing home pork."
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairwoman of its transportation subcommittee, Murray has steered millions of dollars to Washington state for military projects, roads, veterans facilities and other projects.
She is unapologetic about her work as she travels across the state highlighting federal projects she's directed home in a time of a stubborn economic downturn and a state unemployment rate of 8.9 percent, below the national average.
"You can opt out of that, but that means every community in our state is going to be left behind," said Murray, 59, who is fourth in the Democratic leadership. "That money is still going to be allocated in the budget, but it's just going to go to California or New York."
This fierce election-year debate over federal spending is playing out in scores of congressional and gubernatorial races throughout the country, from Kansas to Florida. It's certain to be a factor in the high-stakes outcome that will decide control of Congress and the future of President Barack Obama's agenda. Republicans need a gain of 10 seats to capture the Senate majority, a possibility if they can win seats in Democratic-leaning states like Washington and California.
Mike Duffy, a retired school principal and education consultant, considers himself fairly conservative on money matters, but he still sees a role for government spending during the long economic downturn.
"As a business owner, as somebody that's done pretty well, I benefited from the Bush tax cuts," said Duffy, of Olympia. "On the other hand, with where we are now and with jobs going overseas, I think we have to invest a little more."
As for having a long-serving senator, Duffy said, "That's a special treasure."
Early voting begins next week as ballots must be mailed to voters around the state by Friday. The quirky primary system puts all candidates on the same ballot regardless of party affiliation, sending the two highest vote-getters to the general election. After two unsuccessful bids for governor in the past 10 years, Rossi, 50, is one of the state's best-known Republicans.
Complicating Rossi's path a bit is GOP hopeful Clint Didier, a farmer, high school coach and former NFL tight end who has the backing of tea party activists and 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Didier, who played eight seasons with the Washington Redskins and the Green Bay Packers in the 1980s, has railed against Rossi as the GOP establishment's hand-picked choice. He drew sustained cheers at the state party convention last month and easily beat Rossi in a straw poll of conservatives.
"Is Patty Murray really that much worse than Dino Rossi in my book? I don't know. At this point, today, I'd say no," said Ted Piccolo of Electric City, a conservative Republican and local precinct committeeman.
Other Republicans are miffed by the Didier candidacy, saying Rossi's poll numbers and statewide identity make him the only GOP candidate with a real shot at unseating Murray.
"I'm not going to sit on the sidelines and let liberals control our state and our national government while I sit in my armchair being ideologically pure," said Russell Johnson of Everett.
The challenge from the right has forced Rossi to shift. He has signed on to the tea party-inspired "Contract From America," which includes pledges to enact a flat income tax rate, repeal the new health care law and reject a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions.
Polls have shown Murray and Rossi with commanding leads over the rest of the primary field and essentially tied in a head-to-head matchup. Murray has about $6.8 million in campaign cash as of June 30 while Rossi banked about $1.3 million in his first blitz of fundraising after entering the race in late May.
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