Washington Senate: Is Mike McGavick the Republican Party’s Mr. Right?

by Stuart Rothenberg July 31, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

Chances are, if you are following the midterm elections in general, and the fight for control of the Senate in particular, you’ve heard of Mike McGavick. He’s the former CEO of Safeco, a major insurance company that he turned from a basket case into a profitable business.

I write neither to praise McGavick nor to bury him. I simply want to take a cold-blooded look at his chances. Is all the hype warranted, or is he merely regarded as one of the GOP’s stronger Senate challengers because the party has such a dearth of them?

I met the former insurance company executive a number of months ago, and I’ll admit that I was very impressed. Others have been impressed, too, judging by all the glowing comments I’ve received about him from people who say he is a personal friend or a former colleague.

A chief of staff for then-Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and the manager of Gorton’s 1988 Senate campaign, McGavick knows Washington, D.C., Capitol Hill and political campaigns. He also has the political trifecta: He is smart, personable and wealthy.

McGavick’s personal wealth is one reason why Republicans salivate when they mention his name. They figure he can pour resources into his challenge to Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, helping him overcome whatever Democratic wave is out there in November.

I also was impressed with J. Vanderstoep, McGavick’s top campaign strategist. Vanderstoep performed the same role two years ago for Dino Rossi, the Republican who won the Washington governorship in 2004 — er, seemed to win the governorship before some additional votes appeared at the last minute to help Christine Gregoire (D) squeeze past Rossi.

In the meantime, GOP optimism stems as much from Cantwell’s alleged liabilities as from McGavick’s personal and political assets.

The Democratic Senator was elected to Congress in 1992, but two years later she was swept out of office by Republican Rick White, who matched her spending dollar for dollar and rode the GOP wave that year.

That’s when Cantwell joined Real Networks, the Internet firm that was hotter than a tamale during the tech boom. She became wealthy and used some of those resources to upset Gorton in 2000. Cantwell, like Gregoire four years later, appeared to lose on Election Day, but after all the votes were counted, she inched past the Republican.

Cantwell often is portrayed as cool and distant (but not so cool and distant that she couldn’t get elected twice), and critics note that she no longer has the personal financial resources she once did. They also argue that some liberals within her own party are less than enthusiastic about her, in part because she has been relatively supportive of the Iraq war.

A series of public polls have shown Cantwell holding only a narrow 4- or 5-point lead over McGavick. My problem with those polls is that I don’t have a lot of confidence in them. One of the surveys is an Internet poll, and readers of this column know what I think of those “surveys.” Another is an automated poll. Again, I’m not a huge fan.

I have reason to believe that Cantwell has a somewhat bigger lead, though not one that is intimidating. Overall, the Senator’s numbers are not impressive, and McGavick has both eroded Cantwell’s standing in the ballot test and improved his position and name identification with what one Republican strategist estimated are “in the neighborhood of 2,500 points” of statewide advertising.

Cantwell’s financial position is good. She showed $6.4 million in the bank to McGavick’s almost $1.1 million in cash on hand as of June 30. The wealthy businessman has not put personal money into his race and insists he wants to raise his campaign funds. So we have an irony: Republicans like McGavick in part because of his deep pockets, but so far he hasn’t reached into those pockets to bankroll his campaign. My guess is that at some point he will write a check.

Washington’s Senate contest isn’t taking place on a neutral battlefield. The state clearly prefers Democrats, the cycle favors Democrats and Cantwell has the advantage of incumbency.

But McGavick has two great assets in the race: himself, and his campaign. And in a way, they are the same thing.

McGavick already has run a number of fast-paced, Kim Alfano Doyle-produced TV ads, introducing himself to voters and presenting himself as a nonpolitician and a vehicle for change. The ads are terrific, with McGavick talking in all of them and criticizing “partisan nonsense,” politics as usual and Washington, D.C. The ads portray him as a problem solver, a leader and an outsider — not a politician.

The Republican is running as an unscripted, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of candidate — a successful nonpolitician who wants to change Washington. And by implication, Cantwell is a quintessential politician: She’s heavily managed, partisan and unwilling to present herself to voters in a transparent way. (Cantwell does not speak in her first TV spot except to offer the disclaimer at the end of the ad.)

Of course, Cantwell will challenge that characterization, and she can and will make an issue of McGavick’s business background and his CEO compensation. She certainly is not without weapons in the fight.

If the November election is about the two candidates, McGavick definitely can win. If it’s about President Bush, the Iraq war, health care or the Republican Congress, Cantwell is certain to receive another term. We will see which of the two candidates sets the terms of the debate. But in the meantime, this race definitely is worth watching. Yes, McGavick is for real.