It sometimes seems like Dino Rossi has been running a nonstop campaign for more than six years now, so it’s easy to understand why journalists and voters alike feel that we know the man so well. Too well, perhaps.
But in light of his hard, rightward veer in recent weeks, it is past time for all of us to question whether this is really the same Dino Rossi who ran such a strategically bland, blank-slate campaign back in 2004, or whether Rossi circa 2010 is an entirely different beast? You know, is he just saying and doing the crazy righty things he thinks he needs to do to win the election… or, has Dino Rossi been radicalized?
No Republican can win statewide in Democratic-leaning Washington by running an aggressively conservative campaign (see John Carlson and Ellen Craswell), a fact Rossi knows damn well. Indeed his nearly successful, 2004 tabula rossi strategy has been a model for Washington state and local Republicans ever since.
The trick is not simply to run to the middle, but to run away from the very notions of ideology and partisanship in an effort to snare independents and soft Dems; this can prove an especially effective contrast in a state like Washington where the Democratic base is so proudly partisan, a trait that can admittedly turn off both swing voters and the press. It is this strategy that Rob McKenna effectively executed against Deborah Senn in 2004, and that led Dan Satterberg to victory against Bill Sherman in the 2007 race for King County Prosecuting Attorney.
Of course, this strategy is not without its dangers or its nuance. The candidate who fails to strongly define himself risks being defined by his opponent (Susan Hutchison and David Irons come to mind). Meanwhile, Mike McGavick’s clever twist of attempting to use Cantwell’s very effort to brand him as a wedge against her in his battle to win swing voters, while brilliant, backfired spectacularly. Still, Democrats hold a substantial edge in Washington state, so a Republican’s gotta do what a Republican’s gotta do.
But in 2010, not Dino Rossi.
The same candidate who used to shrug off questions about reproductive rights by quipping that he’s not running for Supreme Court, now seems eager to take the lead on a number of very conservative, very partisan, very Republican issues. Let’s be clear: there’s a difference between opposing the health care reform bill as passed, and signing on to the Tea Party’s “Contract From America” that pledges to “Defund, Repeal, & Replace Government-run Health Care,” (presumably, including Medicare). And there’s a huge difference between saying that he wouldn’t have voted for the recent Wall Street reform package as is, and being the first senatorial candidate in the nation to pledge to repeal it.
Rossi’s more aggressively conservative posture has not only won him millions of dollars from Wall Street, the insurance industry and the usual corporatist suspects, it’s also earned him endorsements from far-right-wing lions like Sen. Jim DeMint, FreedomWorks, and Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council. Does Rossi, like Perkins, consider “homosexuality, bi-sexuality and transgenderism” not to be “acceptable alternative lifestyles or sexual ‘preferences.’ “…? And if so, how will that play with the vast majority of Washington voters on both sides of the political spectrum who believe that what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedroom is nobody’s goddamn business?
It’s a curious strategy for Rossi to take, one which our media has thus far appeared to mostly brush off with their usual “politicians say the darnedest things” attitude, but at some point, shouldn’t we start taking Dino Rossi at his word? When, like fellow Republicans Sharron Angle and Rand Paul, his rhetoric proves to be counterproductive, shouldn’t we reasonably question whether his public proclamations represent the real Rossi, rather than just a political misstep?
In fact, the radicalization of Dino Rossi is nothing new, and is part of the reason why he lost by 200,000 votes in 2008 rather than 129. Rossi was clearly embittered by the 2004 election, and it came through in 2008. He proved an angrier, less likable candidate the second time around, but more importantly, one much more eager to embrace divisive, partisan issues. For example, the 2004 Rossi never would have publicly spoken in favor of cutting the minimum wage, but the 2008 Rossi couldn’t help himself.
Yeah sure, blame a lack of message discipline if you want, but don’t forget to question where this lack of discipline comes from: Rossi’s understandable resentment over his (misguided) belief that crooked Democrats stole the 2004 election. The 2008 Rossi proved a more stridently partisan candidate than voters saw in 2004, and the 2010 Rossi is proving more partisan still. Democrats aren’t mere opponents anymore; we and our policies are “the greatest threat” to the American dream. Thus for Rossi, this no longer a battle for the electoral middle, but rather a battle between saints and sinners, good versus evil.
Exactly the kinda rhetoric one might expect from a radicalized Dino Rossi.