Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Republican Dino Rossi will face off in November's general election after finishing Tuesday as the primary's top two vote getters.
Tuesday's primary battle in Washington state's Senate race was all about positioning for November. Murray was ahead of Rossi, taking 47 percent of the vote to Rossi's 34 percent with 46 percent of precincts reporting.
It's a positive for the endangered Murray heading toward November. Observers were eyeing Tuesday's vote totals as a measure of just how vulnerable Murray is this fall.
While Republicans will argue that Murray finishing with less than 50 percent of the vote is a danger sign for the incumbent, there was at least some concern that Rossi could top Murray's vote total ahead of Tuesday.
The state votes under a new primary system this year — the top-two vote-getters advance to November, no matter their party. And since Murray and Rossi appeared on the same ballot, observers will watch for hints of how the two will fare in the general election.
Tea Party favorite Clint Didier and businessman Paul Akers siphoned off at least some of Rossi's vote. Didier won 10 percent, with Akers taking 2 percent.
Murray spent the day standing beside President Obama at a campaign rally and fundraiser while Rossi was counting on a strong performance to help his argument that Murray is in deep trouble this fall.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and its Republican counterpart both engaged in some pre-primary day spin Monday. The DSCC released a memo downplaying expectations for Murray, noting that if history is any guide, Rossi could get a larger portion of the vote Tuesday.
Executive Director J.B. Poersch pointed out that in 1998, Murray received just 45.9 percent of the primary vote, yet won the general election easily that year.
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh shot back: "But the bottom line is that if Murray’s vote totals are behind Rossi’s, she’s in trouble," he wrote in an e-mail.
Still, it won't prevent Republicans from trumpeting Rossi's Tuesday vote total, particularly since he faced at least some GOP opposition.
Didier, a former NFL player, had the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), but her support was largely a non-factor. The Didier campaign had hoped Palin would headline a last-minute campaign rally, but were forced to settle for a robocall the campaign pushed out ahead of Tuesday's vote.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who backed GOP primary winners Ken Buck in Colorado and Rand Paul in Kentucky, weighed in on behalf of Rossi earlier this month, cutting off just about any oxygen Rossi's challengers had left.
Last month, Didier and Akers joined forces and began holding joint campaign events in an attempt to gain some traction for their anti-establishment message, but Rossi remained the prohibitive favorite on the Republican side.
Murray and Rossi now head to the general election with the race in a dead heat, according to the latest polling. Murray takes 49 percent of the vote to Rossi's 46 percent in a PPP poll from earlier this month.
The contest also offers a clear contrast between a strong backer of the president's legislative agenda and a Republican candidate who wants to repeal two of Obama's cornerstone achievements.
Murray supported the healthcare reform law and financial reform — Rossi has pledged to work for the repeal of both laws if elected to the Senate.
Obama won the state in 2008, beating Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by some 17 points. But the president's approval rating there now stands at 49 percent.
Murray will also head into the general election with a big cash-on-hand edge. Even though Rossi out-raised Murray during the month of July, the incumbent started August with $3.2 million on hand, compared to Rossi's $1.8 million.