It's a race between a young, up-and-coming challenger and an incumbent who is closely associated by many with all the excesses of Congress. Maria Cantwell vs. Slade Gorton? Yes, but that statement could also describe the contest that launched Gorton's senate career, the 1980 race when Gorton was the outsider challenging Warren Magnuson, a statewide icon who was then one of the most powerful men in the nation. If history is repeating itself, it may not bode well for Gorton, since back in 1980 Washington state voters were willing to trade experience and seniority for youth and a fresh perspective.
But while the race may have a link to the past, it may swing on who is seen as being more prepared to lead the state into the future, as the issue of the new economy and how to enable it has become central to the race. But in another important way, the Cantwell/Gorton race may offer a glimpse of things to come in how much money the two are spending to get their message out: a combined $12.5 million at last count. And in the flurry of campaign ads bought with all that money, the focus of the race has more often than not shifted from issues of policy to claims and counterclaims about the content of the TV ads being used. It has, in many ways, become a campaign about a campaign.
Cantwell, you could say, started it all by making Gorton's aggressive ads an issue and correcting what she saw as distortions of her own record. "It is an interesting question," Cantwell told the Seattle Times, "why Sen. Gorton doesn't have anything to say about his record -- it's interesting that there's nothing positive to say."
As if on cue, Gorton's most recent ad highlights his record, stating his history as a defender of Social Security.
But the Cantwell campaign is unimpressed. "That's like defending chocolate cake," says Cantwell's Press Secretary Ellis Conklin. "It hardly earns you a chapter in Profiles In Courage."
The Gorton campaign is quick to point out that the TV ad arms race is a function of Cantwell's personal fortune. "We're running against a candidate with seemingly unlimited resources," says Cynthia Bergman, Gorton's press secretary. "Maria Cantwell is trying to buy this election."
Cantwell has kept her campaign on a higher plane by refusing all soft money and contributions from political action committees. It's a pledge that was enabled by her work as a senior executive at RealNetworks, a high-tech company that made her a multi-millionaire. She has used millions of her own money in the race and says her financial independence is an asset that allows her to challenge the Senate to pass the McCain/Feingold bill, which would ban soft money in congressional campaigns.
Perhaps it's a function of how close the race is thought to be (Gorton's 43 percent showing in the primary wasn't particularly strong, although some recent polls show him leading), but for whatever reason, the race is already the most expensive in state history. And some campaign watchers predict that the pair could spend $20 million by Nov. 7. Gorton, who is taking PAC money, is also a millionaire, an heir to the Gorton's of Gloucester frozen seafood fortune, but he has refused to spend his own money in the race.
Following the claims and counter claims has made this a difficult race to follow -- and it's complicated further by the fact that both Democrats and Republicans seem to be for getting cheaper drugs to senior citizens. But one issue that Gorton latched onto early is taxes. Earlier ads in the campaign pointed out that Cantwell voted to raise taxes 42 times. It's no surprise, as Gorton is almost fanatical about taxes -- he is perhaps the leading voice in the Senate for scrapping the whole tax code and starting over from scratch. But the ads didn't point out that during Cantwell's one-term in Congress, those votes were not on 42 different taxes. In fact, many of them were related to the 1993 budget bill, which was opposed by Republicans who said it would cause a recession but has since been widely credited with the economic boom of the past several years. The Cantwell campaign also quickly pointed out the subjectivity of looking at someone's record by releasing a list of the 345 tax increases Gorton has voted for over the course of his career.
Another issue found in the ads that is believed by campaign strategists to be a major concern to Eastern Washington voters is dam removal. Gorton's ads have suggested that Democrats like Cantwell will tear down the dams. "If Gorton weren't there, the administration would definitely be moving in the direction of dam removal," claims Bergman, who adds that Gorton's position as the chairman of the Appropriations' Interior subcommittee puts him in a position to help the salmon. In the last session, she says, he secured $40 million for salmon recovery.
But again the Cantwell campaign has struggled to correct the thrust of the ads. "It was the Democrats who built the dams," says Conklin. "First Franklin Roosevelt then Magnuson then Scoop Jackson. The Dems built them, they're not going to tear them down."
The most recent flap is over who is better positioned to lead the state into the new economy. As a product of that new economy, Cantwell would seem to have the edge, although Gorton's defense of Microsoft has won him points, too. But Conklin says it's just too convenient an argument for someone with a record like Gorton's.
"Gorton believes you keep going with the traditional forms of the economy, tearing down forests and building gold mines," says Conklin. "We need to build the new economy, through technology, fiberoptics and job training to create a highly skilled workplace. Slowly but surely, income levels will increase, but not by perpetuating a 19th-century economy."
Still, a Seattle Times columnist recently claimed Gorton has an edge over Cantwell on the high tech issue -- a point of information you'll probably see on your TV screen sometime soon.
While the issues certainly separate the two candidates, it's clear that there are generational differences, too -- the same kind that Gorton exploited when he beat Magnuson back in 1980. Gorton, 72, is three years younger than the late Magnuson was in 1980, and is much more spry, as he jogs daily (and his recent laser eye surgery helps him look younger, too). While the Cantwell campaign does not claim his age makes him unfit to serve, they don't mind pointing out that he began his political career before there was color television.
In Cantwell, who was born the year Gorton entered politics, the Democratic Party finally seems to have a challenger who can not only embody the message of change that Gorton used back in 1980, but who can also afford to get that message out. A former state legislator who helped write the Growth Management Act, Cantwell has focused on the private sector since her outster from Congress in 1994.
And Cantwell has a lot of friends, since Gorton has racked up quite a list of enemies over the years. He has been almost unanimously condemned by environmentalists for his votes, especially his notorious salvage timber rider that allowed timber sales in public lands that had previously been off limits. And Native Americans from across the nation are united against him like no other politician for his anti-sovereignty stands. But Gorton has always eluded his enemies, as his seniority on the Senate Appropriations Committee and his constant adherence to a policy of states' rights has allowed him to defend his state's priorities at least enough to win membership in the nation's most exclusive club three times. "The best ideas for our state come from the people who live and work here," Gorton states in a campaign piece, "and not federal bureaucrats 3,000 miles away."
But it's just that record Cantwell has focused on in calling for a change. While Gorton attacked Magnuson for dealing in old-style pork barrel politics, Cantwell has made one of Gorton's own favorite tactics central to her campaign. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Gorton and others on that committee have the ability to tack so-called riders onto the 13 spending bills Congress has to pass every year to fund the budget. The salvage timber sales measure was a rider, as was a measure to overturn a decision not to allow a cyanide-leaching gold mine in Okanogan County. He also tried unsuccessfully to attach a rider that would have prevented the Hanford Reach area of the Columbia River from becoming a national monument, as it did this summer.
"Maria is opposed to sneaking things into an appropriations bill without any kind of disclosure, any kind of public debate or any semblance of a discussion," says Conklin.
Bergman counters that Gorton uses every tool that's available to him to get the job done. "Slade has stated that he is not going to sit back and let 98 other senators dictate what happens or what doesn't happen in Washington state," says Bergman. "He's in the majority, and he has seniority, so the buck stops with him."
Cantwell says the riders used by Gorton and other back-door tactics have led to a situation where Congress is set to approve the biggest domestic spending increase since 1994, when Republicans took over Congress.
The problem in fighting riders is that the spending bills they come with are hard to oppose without risking shutting the government down. The result is that a lot of special interest legislation makes its way out of Congress, without any debate at all, via riders. But even Democrats Norm Dicks and Patty Murray say riders can be the only way to get something done.
While it gives Cantwell a good vehicle for reminding voters of Gorton's record, it's unlikely that she could really change the practice, as only members of the Budget and Appropriations committees have access to the rider issue, and freshmen senators usually are not assigned to those committees. Still, Cantwell says she would work in whatever way she could to shut down that process.
"When we have a U.S. Senate that's not governed by special interests," says Conklin, "you'll have more independent thinking and therefore more problem solving."