OLYMPIA, Wash. - After months of pressure from national Republicans, two-time gubernatorial runner-up Dino Rossi announced Wednesday he would take on Washington state's powerful senior senator, Democrat Patty Murray.
Republicans need 10 seats to seize control of the U.S. Senate and Rossi represents a chance to put an 11th Democrat-held seat into play in November's election. Five Republican seats also are in play. A University of Washington poll released Monday finds that a Rossi-Murray matchup in November would be a statistical dead-heat.
Rossi announced his candidacy with a video posted to his website Wednesday morning, saying he decided to run because of concerns over the national debt, the health care reform bill and the stimulus package.
"I know I won't be able to look my children, and someday their children, in the eye if I do nothing while this fundamental redefinition of America continues unchecked," he said in the video. "I believe the policies being passed in Washington D.C. have put us on the edge of a fiscal cliff."
Rossi's announcement came with some hitches. The five minute message showed up more than 15 minutes later than when he told supporters to tune in. Also, in the hours before it was unveiled, the website displayed a 2008 letter seeking investors in his company, Coast Equity Partners.
Rossi didn't return a phone call, and his spokeswoman said the candidate wouldn't be doing any media interviews until Thursday.
In response, Murray stressed her experience and her priorities.
"I have been working very hard to make sure that as we deal with that debt and deficit that was handed to us by the Bush Administration, that we make wise choices about the investments we make and reducing that deficit and debt in the long run," said Murray.
National Republicans courted Rossi aggressively after polls earlier this year showed he would be competitive. But Rossi hesitated for months, and many wondered if the former real estate agent was willing to tackle another campaign after two failed bids for governor. His 2004 defeat came after two recounts and a court case. Democrat Chris Gregoire won the 2008 rematch by some 200,000 votes.
Murray, a three-term incumbent, figures to be as least as formidable.
"There's strong anti-incumbent sentiments now, but I think if people consider Murray's record, she'll be served well," said Paul Sisson, 59, a retired gardener from Seattle. "Rossi is a nice guy, but I don't think he's got the experience and judgment she has."
Washington state has no party registration, and all candidates appear on the Aug. 17 primary ballot. The top two advance, regardless of party.
One primary candidate -- Clint Didier -- has drawn favor from tea party activists and the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
But a rerun of the recent primary in Kentucky, where a tea party-backed candidate upset a more mainstream Republican, isn't likely. Didier, a farmer most famous as a tight end for the Washington Redskins in the 1980s, hails from sparsely populated eastern Washington, while Rossi grew up in Seattle and now lives in the city's affluent and vote-rich eastern suburbs.
Rossi made a nod to the power of the tea party by tapping political consultant Pat Shortridge, a top adviser for Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio, whose popularity surged due to tea party support.
"If Dino Rossi wants to win, he's going to have to court the tea party," said Shelby Blakely, a tea-party activist from the small eastern Washington town of Prosser. "This is Washington, you need every conservative you can get."
Washington has leaned left in national politics in recent years. Ronald Reagan was the last Republican to carry the state in a presidential race, and six of the state's nine U.S. House members are Democrats.
Murray, first elected in 1992, has won re-election twice by wide margins. She has aided powerful homegrown interests such as the Boeing Co., and delivers federal spending to all corners of the state.
"She's able to get a lot of funding for a bunch of different projects," said Peter St. Pierre, a 24-year-old general contractor from Bellevue who voted for Rossi in 2008 but finds himself on the fence over this race. "But at the same time, I like Dino Rossi's politics better."
Against Murray, Rossi will have to confront hot-button social issues such as abortion, which he was able to largely sidestep during his bids for governor by conceding that abortion rights were well established in Washington.
National Democrats have been on the attack for months, painting Rossi's commercial real estate career as a tangle of unsavory associations, and pointing to $20,000 in delinquent property taxes owed by his business partners.
Rossi said he has no ownership interest in the property in question, and dismisses the attacks as a smear campaign.
State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said they're taking Rossi's candidacy seriously.
"It's an unpredictable year in America, we know that," he said. "But Rossi is the establishment Republican candidate, he is the hand-picked candidate of Washington, D.C."
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