Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) does not face nearly as strong an anti-war primary challenger today as Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) did a month ago, but she has taken about as much flak for her support of the war in Iraq.
Cantwell, who like Lieberman comes from a blue state with a strong anti-war segment of the electorate, has sought, unlike him, to distance herself from the unpopular war.
Her opponents say that the shifts are cosmetic, but Cantwell’s poll numbers have jumped in recent weeks, undermining what had been Republicans’ hopes of a dramatic pick-up in the Senate.
Today’s primary, which includes anti-war Democrat Hong Tran, could provide an indication of how many anti-war Democrats remain unhappy enough with Cantwell to cast a protest vote against her. She will face two third-party anti-war candidates in November, and in a close race that could cost Cantwell her seat.
While Cantwell and her Republican rival, Mike McGavick, have been polled as close as four percentage points from each other recently, Cantwell enters the primary leading by 17 points, 52-35, according to an independent Rasmussen Reports poll released last Tuesday. The results closely resemble a SurveyUSA poll from late August, which had Cantwell up 53-36.
McGavick’s campaign attributed the poll results to his decision to reveal his 1993 drunken driving arrest, and subsequent reports that show he misstated details of it. He said later it was due to faulty memory.
“That poll is a snapshot of a period immediately after Mike took what many called a courageous act in the self-revelation of mistakes and when we had just gone on TV in Seattle for the first time in months,” McGavick spokesman Elliott Bundy said.
Cantwell’s campaign said the bump is a result of the senator’s increased visibility, in person and in ads.
The poll was also conducted before reports surfaced about Cantwell’s role steering $11 million to projects that benefited clients of a lobbyist who had worked as her campaign manager. Ethics experts have criticized Cantwell, but she says she did nothing wrong.
However these issues play out, the war will continue to be at the forefront of the race.
In addition to the primary challenger, Cantwell will face two third-party anti-war candidates, the Green Party’s Aaron Dixon and Libertarian Bruce Guthrie. Neither is likely to take more than a few percentage points in the general election, but their support could come almost exclusively at Cantwell’s expense.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who like Cantwell has been criticized for not speaking out more forcefully against the war, took 83 percent of the vote in her primary against anti-war challenger Jonathan Tasini. But unlike Cantwell, Clinton does not face a difficult reelection bid.
Cantwell faced another anti-war Democrat, Mark Wilson, until he dropped his bid and joined her campaign in a paid position, a move criticized by her opponents.
Cantwell voted for the resolution authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq and for subsequent spending bills, but in June she supported a Democratic amendment urging the president to begin troop withdrawals this year (Lieberman opposed it), and in the ensuing months has been more critical of the execution of the mission.
By July, she was calling for a “change of course,” and in August, after McGavick said he would not have voted for the war if he knew then what he knows today, Cantwell recanted on earlier statements and agreed.
Both have rejected a call for immediate withdrawal but say if progress is not made this year, the mission should be reevaluated.
Cantwell’s spokeswoman, Katharine Lister, said the difference between Cantwell and McGavick is that McGavick is for “staying the course” while Cantwell and congressional Democrats are holding the administration responsible.
But both Dixon and McGavick said Cantwell still holds a view on Iraq that barely differs from McGavick’s.
“I do think that she’s been trying to moderate her position, and if she continues to, then we will be in disagreement,” said McGavick, a former Safeco CEO. “But there’s nothing that is substantive yet.”
Dixon, a community activist and former Black Panther Party leader, said he has noticed Cantwell trying to shift her stance, so far without significant steps. He said he hopes she will support an immediate withdrawal.
“The war is becoming so unpopular … we’re just hoping that she is beginning to listen to them,” Dixon said. “But her record has proven that she’s not to be trusted.”
Dixon said part of his campaign’s purpose was to “put some pressure” on Cantwell. He said he’s not wary of stealing votes from her in November because the two major parties haven’t differed much and the country needs a multi-party political system.
The SurveyUSA poll showed Dixon and Guthrie each taking 3 percent of the vote.