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Surprise! 

Rossi’s in, Ward’s out — so what just happened?

click to enlarge Dino Rossi
  • Dino Rossi

Reporters, it seemed, were ready to call the Senate race for incumbent Patty Murray — way back in March. After all, Murray has raised $9.8 million — 28 times more than Clint Didier, her closest opponent. And in most polls, Murray has remained more than 8 points ahead of any of her challengers.

But then last week, former gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi jumped in the race — a move that pundits had been murmuring about for weeks — and further squeezed an already crowded field of candidates.

“His indecision has caused him to be a candidate in the campaign even when he wasn’t announced,” says state Senator Don Benton, a fellow Republican vying for Murray’s seat. “We certainly felt his presence. I think every candidate did.”

Former football star Clint Didier, a candidate endorsed by Sarah Palin and brandishing the Tea Party torch, fired back immediately against the Rossi challenge.

“If people want more of the same, the McCain- or Bush-type of governing, then they can support Dino,” Didier says in a statement. “If they want the change they missed the last time, then they can support me.”

Rossi, meanwhile, says he plans to hit Murray on the issue of fiscal responsibility, especially on the issue of earmarks, those pet projects that are slipped into bills. “What D.C.’s really in need of is adult supervision,” he says.

“Patty Murray is proud to deliver dollars to Spokane community so they can create jobs,” Murray campaign manager Jeff Bjornstadt says, citing the cash Murray has raked in for Fairchild Air Force Base, the downtown Riverpoint Campus and research for Eastern Washington.

Rossi has run for higher office before, of course. In 2004, he ran against Christine Gregoire for governor and lost by 133 votes. In 2008, he challenged her again and lost by 194,614 votes. So what makes Rossi think the third time will be different?

“The reality is that this is clearly winnable,” Rossi says.

WARD v. LABRADOR: A Story of Woe

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. For Republicans, Vaughn Ward seemed the perfect candidate. He was an Iraq War veteran and a former John McCain aide.

He’d gained endorsements from two former Idaho governors, former Congressman Tom Tancredo and Sarah Palin herself. At one time, he had six times more funds than opponent Raul Labrador.

“Six weeks from the primary, Raul wasn’t even given last rites,” Labrador spokesman Dennis Mansfield says. “They just said he was D.O.A.”

But a lot can happen in a few weeks. Ward started making gaffes. Big ones. They came quickly. There was the debate with Labrador in which Ward called Puerto Rico a country. There were the late property taxes and the incomplete financial-disclosure statements. There was the campaign ad that the military told him to pull for using his Marine uniform inappropriately. There was the revelation he failed to vote in the 2008 election. There was the newspaper article that revealed half of the positional statements on his Website were stolen from other candidates. There was the video edited together revealing how closely statements in his stump speech resembled Obama statements (in Idaho, not a good thing). There were the Jay Leno jokes on The Tonight Show.

Both Ward and Labrador are pretty conservative — Ward wants to build a fence on the Mexican border; Labrador wants to send troops to the border — although Labrador pointed out that Ward worked for Democrats in college.

But in the end, Labrador didn’t just eke out a win. He won by 10 points.

“One of the Biblical stories that means a lot to [Labrador] is the story of Lazarus,” Mansfield says. “Labrador rose from the political dead.”

But winning the general election may take another miracle. Labrador has only raised $103,000, while Democratic incumbent Walt Minnick has more than $1.5 million.

Sure, Idaho’s traditionally a conservative state, but Minnick has a long list of conservative votes: against the stimulus, against cap and trade, against health care reform.

“Walt’s votes against overspending are well documented,” Minnick spokesman John Foster says.

Of course, Minnick also last week voted to allow the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevents gays from serving in the military. Mansfield says Labrador would have joined most of the House Republicans in voting against repealing the measure.

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