Call it one of the great paradoxes of the modern political landscape: As both sides dig in to protect the ideologies sacred to their respective bases, more and more Americans are abandoning both parties and identifying themselves as independent voters. At the very moment each party is appealing to its base, the bases are shrinking.
That means a candidate who can appeal beyond his or her party base, to the elusive crossover voter, is at a premium these days. So far, there are a plethora of firmly partisan candidates running for office; it's hard to imagine, for example, a voter who would cast a ballot for both President Obama and Virginia Republican Senate candidate George Allen, or for Mitt Romney or Rick Perry and Ohio's Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
But in Washington state, which has become a Democratic stronghold in recent years, Republicans have found a candidate they believe can appeal to well-educated voters largely predisposed toward Democrats. If Attorney General Rob McKenna continues wooing Democratic-leaning voters, the state may break its 28-year old streak of electing Democrats as governor.
McKenna has a history of winning crossover votes. In 2008, President Obama won 57.6 percent of the vote statewide; McKenna, seeking reelection, pulled in 59.4 percent. Now, a poll conducted for Strategies 360, a Seattle public affairs firm, shows McKenna leading Rep. Jay Inslee, the likely Democratic nominee, by a 46 percent to 39 percent margin.
The difference between McKenna and other Republican candidates in Washington state is his appeal to college-educated voters. Those voters have for years favored Democratic candidates. In 2008, Washington state college graduates favored Obama by a 61 percent to 37 percent margin. But in 2010, they showed an interest in voting Republican: College graduates favored Democratic Sen. Patty Murray over Republican Dino Rossi by a much narrower 55 percent to 45 percent margin (Murray and Rossi tied among those voters who held only a bachelor's degree, at 50 percent each; Murray won among those with post-graduate degrees by a whopping 28 points).
At a time when the Republican Party is being dominated by a populist fervor that has manifested itself in the tea party movement, McKenna is decidedly not a tea party Republican who might scare away upper middle-class voters in the critical Seattle suburbs—an area he represented when he served on the King County Council.
"He is not Sarah Palin. He is not a visceral candidate. He is an intellectual candidate. And for those crossover Democrats, that's what they'll vote for," said Todd Myers, a Washington state Republican strategist. "Washington voters are more likely to ballot-switch because they work harder to look at the caniddate than just the party label. That doesn't mean the party label won't play a role. It does. But they are more willing to cross over."
The poll that shows McKenna ahead is built largely on name recognition. More Washington state voters know McKenna than know Inslee; among those who know both candidates, they are statistically tied. The poll, conducted by Spokane-based American Directions Group, questioned 500 registered voters in Washington state between September 11 and 14, for a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percent.
Inslee brings his own strengths to the table. Democrats expect him to paint McKenna as an extremist to win back voters who are ordinarily in the Democratic column. Inslee has room to grow among Democrats, too; the survey shows Inslee attracts two-thirds of Obama voters, while McKenna wins nearly nine in 10 McCain supporters.
Much as McKenna turns the tables on the prevailing mood within the Republican Party, Inslee is charting his own new course, one that even committed liberals would have been wary to pursue in recent years: Inslee will draw a contrast with McKenna over same-sex marriage. While Democrats spent years running away from the issue, Inslee will embrace gay marriage, a position in step with 54 percent of Washington voters, according to the Strategies 360 poll.
Though Washington has not elected a Republican governor since the moderate John Spellman took advantage of a divided Democratic electorate to win a single term in 1980, the state responds to Republicans who portray themselves as centrist. Rossi came close, twice, to winning the governorship (Washington Republicans are still sore over the 2004 race, which Democrat Christine Gregoire won by just 129 votes after a nasty legal fight).
If McKenna can keep his reputation as a centrist intact and avoid the stain of the tea party, Republicans have a real shot at ending an historic losing streak. Those hopes rest on whether Inslee has found a new way to appeal to independent voters—with an issue that once would have hurt Inslee politically, and one that speaks to just how liberal an electorate McKenna now faces.