Congressional candidates Cathy McMorris and Don Barbieri faced each other for the first time last week, as Spokane's Rotary Club 21 hosted a debate. In keeping with the national state of politics today, the most heated topic of discussion was the ads they were running on television. When the race to choose your next representative to Congress starts to focus on the campaign itself, you've entered the political twilight zone.
"We need to pass on the example to our kids of integrity," Barbieri told the gathering of downtown businessmen and women as he criticized the latest ads from the Republican Party that questioned his business ethics.
"I'm disappointed that my opponent is currently running negative ads," countered McMorris, who claimed her record is being misconstrued.
Where's Rod Serling when you need him?
There are actual issues at stake in the election, specifically how the 5th District will be represented in D.C. on issues like health care, the environment and fiscal policy. But if you watch the ads, this race is about whether Barbieri made money on a land deal that happened before anyone even knew who George Nethercutt was, or whether McMorris wants to keep kids from getting health insurance.
And immense amounts of money are being spent on these TV ads. Despite Barbieri's early lead in fundraising, most campaign watchers knew that money would never be a problem in this race. As one of a handful of competitive races nationwide that will determine whether Republicans maintain control of Congress, neither party has been stingy about pouring money into the 5th District. The stakes are even higher for the GOP, since the seat has been in their column since 1994.
Barbieri has presented a tricky set of circumstances to Republican strategists. He is clearly the best candidate the Democrats have run since Tom Foley lost in '94. As a businessman with no political experience, he has no votes to be tripped up over. McMorris -- like presidential candidate John Kerry -- is finding out how tough having a voting history can be. For those immersed in opposition research, an elected official's voting history is a treasure trove of campaign fodder. And having only joined the political fray within the past year, Barbieri has been able to articulate his positions all at once. That's not to say that his values were tailored to fit the district, but few of his stands have given the GOP much to work with: He's for the right to bear arms, against gay marriage and claims to be as conservative and pro-business a Democrat as you'll find. He is a pro-choice Catholic, but that hasn't been much of an issue so far -- although at least one American Catholic bishop has claimed voting Democrat may be a sin.
So the opposition researchers have had to dig a little deeper, in his case into his many business deals over the years. So far, most of the issues the Republican Party has raised are more than a decade old.
Of course, Barbieri campaign officials say that even the stuff the Republican Party has come up with is bogus. He's been dinged on TV for killing jobs at the Broadview Dairy, but he says he actually saved jobs at an operation that was bound for bankruptcy -- and he did it at the request of the governor of the state of Washington. They've hit him for a sweetheart deal on some downtown property that left him rich, leaving only a hole in the ground to show for it. Barbieri says he lost money on the deal, and there's no hole in the ground -- it's now the STA Plaza.
And outside authorities seem to agree with Barbieri, including some of the region's newspapers, like the Spokesman-Review and the Lewiston Morning Tribune, which have called the ads misleading and/or false. So if political ads are supposed to inform, not confuse, why do they still get on TV? Local broadcasters could reject the ads, as FOX 28 actually did, but few stations in the entire nation will reject campaign money. The owners of these stations make massive windfalls on these once-every-four-year bonanzas. Even at the national level, when all but one of the Swift Boat veterans' claims were debunked by major newspapers, the ads still ran. Here's the deal: There is no referee. It's up to the campaigns to scream and hope that the voters hear them. In the meantime, you can only imagine the family from Walla Walla who, while visiting Spokane, wants to get their picture taken in front of that hole in the ground that Barbieri made.
The Battle for the 5th
So Barbieri has done what he can: complain. "The ads lie," he says. "So the question becomes about the candidate who won't stand up and ask them to take it down."
Meanwhile, he started running his own ads, challenging McMorris's record of voting against getting more kids insured (in what Republicans call another doomed-to-fail, government-run system) and for allowing the outsourcing jobs. These are stretches, too, but do have the advantage of being based on actual votes. McMorris says it's negative campaigning, something Barbieri had promised not to do -- she even has a new ad accusing him of running negative ads. Barbieri says it's nothing personal, but a tough look at the issues is fair game.
But McMorris has given the controversy legs. While other Republicans may have stood up for the ads, willing to anger some Barbieri supporters, by saying something like, "The voters deserve to have all the information in front of them so they can decide," McMorris has vacillated. It's still unclear whether she actually asked her own party -- which she referred to as an "outside group" at the Rotary debate -- to stop running the ads. But she has said she has "voiced her concerns" to the party, adding that she objected to the tone of the ads more than to the content. "I am proud of the fact that we have run a positive campaign," McMorris says, apparently referring to the ads with her campaign's name on them, not those coming from the Republican National Congressional Committee.
Still, the question persists: If she actually did ask her party to pull the ads but they refused, it would seem to confirm Barbieri's central premise: McMorris will be just another unwitting cog in the GOP machine. (McMorris points out, accurately, that the McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws prohibit communication or coordination between the party and the candidate on advertising buys and content.)
Despite powering through the primary, beating Larry Sheahan and Shaun Cross handily, some Republicans have privately feared that McMorris was the weakest of the three to face the much older, more experienced Barbieri. With only and MBA and some time working at the family fruit stand for real-world business experience, some felt she would not match up well to his resume as a CEO of a publicly traded corporation. And in the battleground of Spokane, Barbieri is the local boy made good. Cross was fairly open about this concern in the closing weeks, saying he had the right set of experiences to match up with Barbieri. And Sheahan claimed his blend of legislative and business experience as a private practice attorney were just right. The two combined outpolled McMorris, but their splitting of votes allowed her to outdistance them both -- even in Spokane County.
Still, since 1994, the district has become more Republican than ever, making any Democrats' chances pretty tough. In the primary, more than 10,000 more Republican ballots were taken than Democrat ballots in the 5th District. And with a little more polish, McMorris seems to have the makings of another Jennifer Dunn, the smooth West Side Congresswoman who many wanted to run against Patty Murray. McMorris lined up endorsements and financial support early on, and she connects well on the campaign trail, with her lower-taxes message and family ties to agriculture. She has already won five reelection campaigns. And she's a woman, with the built-in appeal that generally wins among half the electorate.
McMorris is not as monolithic a Republican as Barbieri would have you think. She has split with her own party on a number of issues -- not surprisingly, issues that are losers for the GOP. She is willing to blame at least some of the federal deficit on the GOP, and she's calling for a balanced-budget amendment, as she has worked under in Olympia. "I'm disappointed in the deficit spending that's taken place under a Republican administration," she says.
And she wants to allow the importation of drugs from Canada to cut the costs for seniors -- although now president Bush is apparently for it, too, despite having made it illegal in the recent Medicare drug benefit legislation he supported and signed. She is also willing to criticize her own party for its mishandling of the overall health care crisis.
As an effective legislator in an evenly split Olympia, McMorris had to find ways to work with Democrats -- something she hopes to use to take with her to D.C. "Early on," she says of her career to date, "I was disappointed how may times we would agree what the big issues were, but we would leave Olympia without dealing with them." She says as caucus leader, she had to reach out to Democrats to be effective, adding that in recent years, the success rate has been higher, especially on surviving the state's budget crisis without raising taxes.
"We learned how to pull people together," she says of her party's adjustments, "not just to point out what was wrong."
But just how conservative is she? If Don Barbieri is nearer to the center than most Democrats, as he claims, where on the spectrum of extreme to moderate is McMorris? It's hard to say, as she plays it very close, usually preferring general statements to specifics. She is among a handful of Congressional candidates to have been endorsed by the Club For Growth, one of the nation's most conservative independent political groups. (Whether that group is planning its own set of TV ads remains to be seen.) Then there's the college she attended in Florida, the Pensacola Christian College, where she earned a degree in pre-law. Affiliated with the Independent Baptist Church, it is among those colleges called "Creationist Schools," meaning the administration rejects geological history and evolution in its academic programs. "We believe that God created the universe in six literal days," the school's Web site states.
McMorris, who later earned her MBA at the University of Washington, did not clarify her position on creationism and evolution by the time we went to press on Tuesday night.
But even if she were suspicious of evolution, it may not be all that shocking; after all, President Bush said in 2000 that he thought creationism and evolution should be taught side by side in public schools. The president has never taken a formal position on whether he believes in evolution, however.
On the Issues
So if you watch the TV ads, you get one story about this race. It's interesting to political junkies, but it may not help you make a decision on Nov. 2. But if you see the candidates in person, you can get a better idea. At the Rotary Club debate last Thursday, McMorris and Barbieri took a whack at a series of questions supplied by the audience.
TORT REFORM "We are one of the crisis states in this country, and we must take action," McMorris said. She wants to see a federal cap on liability awards, and says rising insurance rates for doctors is driving health care costs up.
"This is a fight that won't get a solution," Barbieri said of the skirmish between insurance companies and lawyers that has dragged on for years. He says a reinsurance pool added above a certain level would allow doctors' insurance premiums to be capped; it might have to be partially funded by the public, but it would create even more savings in the overall system. And he wants to see any potential lawsuit be filtered by a series of litmus tests, to keep frivolous suits out of the legal system.
DAMS Somebody somewhere seems to think this is still an issue, but no Washington Democrat of national stature other than Jim McDermott has ever supported the removal of the dams located in the 5th District. Both candidates are for keeping the dams.
IMMIGRATION "We must encourage legal immigration and discourage illegal immigration," McMorris said, adding that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is too bloated an agency to be effective. Unlike President Bush, she does not support any kind of amnesty program, and she wants to make sure the country's borders are secure.
"When we have laws, let's enforce them," Barbieri said. He added that he would favor giving illegal immigrants a year to register with INS, but if they don't meet that deadline, they should be sent back to their homeland. He would consult with orchardists and others who rely on immigrant workers to make sure any changes make sense.
MILITARY DRAFT Barbieri is against it, but he took the opportunity to say some form of compulsory national service, similar perhaps to Americorps, would be a good thing for the country.
McMorris also opposed a draft, saying a voluntary force is stronger. She went on to say that the country must fully fund the troops it already has.
LIGHT RAIL "We're going to have light rail someday," said Barbieri, "and it's going to connect Coeur d'Alene and the Spokane Airport." He added that as a volunteer with the Chamber of Commerce, he helped secure some of the right of way needed for the project when it became available.
McMorris did not articulate a position on light rail.
HEALTH CARE "We need relief," McMorris put it bluntly, pointing out that the costs are hardest on small business, which causes much of the uninsured problem. Again she said enacting tort reform would begin to cut costs in a major way, and she would like to see new pools created for businesses to join so their buying power could increase, thus decreasing their premiums.
Barbieri agrees with creating new, larger pools to negotiate with insurance companies, but he adds that employers who offer coverage to their employees should get a tax break. He says the cost of that tax break would be made up elsewhere in the system, as the number of uninsured could be cut in half.
COMMITTEE ASSIGNMENT When asked which committee he would seek to serve on if elected, Barbieri said he hoped for Energy and Commerce, where he could work on his health care plans and on energy issues, like bio-fuels that could be grown in the fields of Eastern Washington.
McMorris didn't mention a preference, but said, "It's unlikely for a freshman to get on the [Appropriations or Ways and Means] committees," the most powerful committees in Congress, "but I've been told not to give up on it." Nethercutt served on the Appropriations Committee.
PRESCRIPTION DRUGS Barbieri is critical of the new Medicare drug benefit, saying it's too expensive. "We have price fixed [drugs]," he said. "And we have set our prices the highest in the world." He pointed out that the federal Veterans Administration negotiates as a bloc, so he wondered why it was made illegal for Medicare users to negotiate lower prices.
McMorris supports importing drugs from Canada, adding that the Medicare bill "has room for improvement" but was "a step in the right direction."
In case you have the feeling that something's missing, you're right: Iraq. Nobody asked about it, and perhaps that's the way the candidates like it. This race is all about the economy, health care -- oh yeah, and the TV ads. Iraq may just be too hot to handle -- an unpredictable issue that could cut in any number of ways come Election Day. And Congress's role in decision-making on the issue is limited mainly to funding. For the record, McMorris supports Bush's approach in Iraq, while Barbieri supports Kerry's notion of getting more allies involved.
Barbieri stresses the need to bring the boys home as soon as possible, too. He mentions a military officer he met who was getting ready to ship out to Iraq, who told him how too many good officers are leaving the military. Barbieri, who sees things through the eyes of a former CEO, says if a corporation starts to lose its middle-management, trouble isn't far behind.
"I support the troops," McMorris said in a separate interview, "and we need to get them the resources they need. And we have to make sure they have a more stable government in Iraq, that [the Iraqis] can defend themselves."
The End Is Near
So now it's the sprint to the finish. No doubt, the TV wars will continue, and if the national discourse is any indication, you can count on it getting nastier. But this is Eastern Washington, and despite some polling that shows one-third of the district claiming to be neither Republican nor Democrat, the pressure is clearly on the Democrat to beat the odds.
Barbieri's job is to get Republicans to buy into his business experience. He says he is already reaching out to supporters of Cross and Sheahan with some success. "This is a real choice between real world experience and party politics," he told the Rotary gathering.
Meanwhile, McMorris must hold her own in Spokane County, Barbieri's backyard where two-thirds of the 5th District's votes will come from. She should do fine in the rural parts of the district -- although Walla Walla and Pullman are fertile country for a Democrat -- but she needs to convince Spokane-area Republicans that her conservative values match the district's and that, as she put it twice at the Rotary debate, her legislative experience will allow her to "hit the ground running" once she gets back to Washington, D.C.
Of course there's another scenario, and that is that all the TV ads, all the debates and all the doorbells rung won't add up to much at all. You see, the last three times the 5th District turned over -- in 1942, when Walt Horan won, in 1964, when Tom Foley won and in 1994, when Nethercutt won -- it was when major political changes shook the nation. This election has that feel, and it could be that whichever presidential candidate's coattails are bigger come Election Day, the 5th District will jump on board. But once elected, the 5th has stuck with their man -- only three have held the job since World War II. So get to know these two: One of them is likely to be around for a very long time.
To read our profiles of Cathy McMorris and Don Barbieri from earlier this year, go to www.inlander.com and hit the "Election Coverage" button under "Quick Links."