After nearly 30 years, Washington State Republicans thought they had finally found their guy. Attorney General Rob McKenna, a young, energetic candidate with executive experience and a long record in the state, was thought to be the Great Red Hope: the GOP's first chance at putting one of their own in Washington State's gubernatorial mansion since John Spellman left office in 1985. McKenna is a moderate with cross-over appeal; he actually outpolled President Obama in the state in 2008 when he ran for reelection as attorney general.
But that isn't the McKenna that's shown up on the airwaves. In fact, McKenna's paid media strategy is curiously light on defense, as Democrats pile up negatives against him.
The race to replace retiring Gov. Christine Gregoire was supposed to be closer than it's starting to look. McKenna began the race with better name identification than former Rep. Jay Inslee, the Democratic nominee, and he has spent the last eight years as attorney general burnishing his independent credentials with voters. Every newspaper that has endorsed this cycle has chosen McKenna over Inslee, citing his commitment to reigning in spending in Olympia, his plan to fully fund education -- a hot topic in Washington following a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year -- and his detailed economic plan.
But voters don't seem convinced. Inslee, who left Congress earlier this year to run for governor, beat McKenna by nearly five points in the August primary, and he's led every public poll since. McKenna's campaign and the Republican Governors Association argue that their numbers tell a different story, but both declined to release any polling information.
When McKenna announced his bid for governor in June, 2011, some wondered whether the "R" after his name would matter more as he sought a more partisan office. But observers gave McKenna better odds than previous Republican candidates, including 2004 and 2008 nominee Dino Rossi, who lost two narrow bids against Gregoire. Conventional wisdom held that McKenna's moderate record, especially on social issues, would help him attract Democrats and independents. His campaign touted his ability to draw crossover votes from Obama supporters in 2008. But McKenna isn't running like a moderate, and he has so far allowed Inslee and his Democratic allies to pull out the national Democratic playbook and paint him as a typical Republican with some dangerous ideas.
In some ways, McKenna has allowed Democrats to guide the conversation. A series of three "Real Rob McKenna" ads put out by the Our Washington super PAC -- which is backed largely by the Democratic Governors Association and teachers unions -- labels McKenna a moderate, before claiming he's "not who he says he is."
But there's the rub: McKenna's not saying it.
In the four ads McKenna has released since the August primary the words "moderate" and "independent" don't appear a single time. Instead, McKenna ends every single ad by calling himself a Republican.
McKenna's campaign points out that all candidates are required by state law to disclose their party affiliation. It does not, however, require that they make that disclosure aloud. Most of Inslee's ads don't mention his party at all except in the tiny written disclaimer at the bottom of the screen in the ad's final seconds.
McKenna's ads focus almost entirely on Democrats' overspending -- both in Olympia and Washington, DC -- and his own desire for a smaller government with less red tape that will focus on job-creation.
In the meantime, McKenna has left the field open for Democrats to tie him to the more extreme elements of his party. One big winner for Inslee's allies has been his focus on tying McKenna to what national Democrats have termed the "War on Women." A recent Our Washington ad ties McKenna to the "national Republican agenda," which it says would outlaw abortion, restrict women's access to contraception, and "deny nearly 13 million women access to cancer screenings."
McKenna supports none of those proposals. He has said repeatedly that he supports abortion and reproductive rights under the laws of the state. He was quick to distance himself from the plank in this year's Republican Party platform that opposed abortion, even in the cases of rape or incest, and he was among the first Republican candidates this cycle to come out against Rep. Todd Akin
's, R-Mo., controversial comments about "legitimate rape," saying they disqualified him as a candidate for office.
But watching his television ads or listening to McKenna's debate performances, voters would have no idea. McKenna is also in favor of giving women access to emergency contraception and he supports the state's domestic partnership law. He does oppose same sex marriage, which will be on the November ballot, but so far Democrats have avoided attacking him on the issue. Inslee supports the referendum.
The war on women narrative seemed to take its toll in September, when an Elway Poll
released on Sept. 14 showed Inslee with a 19-point advantage among women voters. That week McKenna released a positive spot, pointing to his work as attorney general in combating domestic violence and helping victims of sexual assault and stalking. That ad features his wife and two daughters, referring to them as "good reasons" to fight for Washington state women. It did not, however, address any of the reproductive rights issues Democrats spent months tying him to.
The same ad ties McKenna to national Republicans who want to "cut education," despite the fact that McKenna has anchored his entire campaign on increasing funding for schools. What's more: the state is required
to increase education funding under a state Supreme Court ruling handed down earlier this year. The connection is so plainly false that even the liberal Seattle blog PubliCola called it a "lazy assertion." McKenna has mentioned his education plan in one ad since then, but it's buried among a laundry list of other typically Republican soundbites: "deficits increasing," "stop government's overspending," "create new private sector jobs" and it makes no reference to the Democrats' claim.
A second Our Washington ad accuses McKenna of fundraising for George W. Bush
in 2000 and chairing the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008. Though McKenna did list his fundraising work for Bush's campaign on his resume as recently as 2002, according to The Olympian
, the campaign hasn't distanced itself from the former president or the 2008 Republican ticket. A follow-up story by the Associated Press delving into McKenna's work for Bush (as well as a speech he gave for the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council) bore the headline: "Conservative ties muddy McKenna's moderate appeal." Not exactly the October message the campaign was looking for.
McKenna's campaign is quick to point out that other newspapers and fact checkers have called many of these claims "false" or "misleading" and, for them, the burden seems to end there. McKenna's communications director, Charles McCray
, says rather than spend time responding to Democratic attacks, the campaign is focused on local issues. "I don't know that we're just letting it go," McCray said. "We're certainly encouraging the media to do their job and they have been pointing out these ads to be false and misleading."
"We have the best asset possible to combat these ads and that is Rob himself," McCray said, adding that McKenna has a long history in the state and that voters already know who the "real Rob McKenna" is. Though the ads charge that McKenna is "not who he says he is," McCray notes: "Their biggest problem is that Rob is exactly who he says he is."
Republican Governors Association communications director Mike Schrimpf
echoed that sentiment. "McKenna is a statewide elected official who's won 60% of the vote," he said. "Voters of Washington know him. ... Trying to connect him with national Republicans is not very credible."
The RGA has invested almost $7 million in the race and has launched four television ads attacking Inslee. Asked if the group would spend any money on positive ads for McKenna, Schrimpf said that the RGA doesn't discuss its internal strategy, but said that he "wouldn't rule anything out."
"I don't think you ever feel really confident about Washington," Schrimpf said. "But it is anybody's race right now and we're as well-positioned as we can be in mid-October."