McGavick lays off Cantwell, even as he fights for her job

Republican Mike McGavick wants Washington state voters to fire Sen. Maria Cantwell (D), but he won’t say much about what she’s done to deserve a pink slip.

Republican Mike McGavick wants Washington state voters to fire Sen. Maria Cantwell (D), but he won’t say much about what she’s done to deserve a pink slip.

In a 45-minute interview yesterday with The Hill, McGavick, who recently stepped down as CEO of the insurance giant Safeco, declined to attack any of Cantwell’s votes save her opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He also called her “the No. 1 voter for federal spending.”

But McGavick, 48, took pains to avoid coming down too hard on the first-term senator, who won in 2000 with 49 percent of the vote.

“This race is not about her as a person, and the kind of negative-person, character-based attacks that you see in other races will not be a part of my campaign, period,” McGavick said. “But what I will focus on is the way she has approached representing Washington state, and the philosophy she brings with her.”

Asked what other Cantwell votes he would be highlighting on the campaign trail, McGavick said: “We’ve talked as much about her at this point in the race as I’m going to, at this point in the race.”

When pressed about any future discussion of Cantwell’s tenure on Capitol Hill, McGavick added: “In a respectful way, we will talk about our differences.”

McGavick’s insistence on being upbeat — or, at least, not getting too muddy — is reflected in a television ad he ran in late January and February touting personal responsibility, and it is in keeping with his twin campaign themes of “civility” and “problem solving.”

And it comports with his politics.

While many Republicans, including some White House hopefuls, are preaching fiscal restraint to win over conservatives, McGavick is charting a middle-of-the-road course that dispenses with ideology and stresses bipartisanship and results — not surprising for a businessman from a blue state in a bad year for Republicans.

He says the White House has been consumed by the war on terrorism and has lost sight of its domestic agenda, adding that the president was right to focus on national security in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but should have turned to reforming the nation’s entitlement programs in 2004, starting with Medicare.

And he says that the debate surrounding the Dubai ports deal was an abomination, typical of Washington today. Given the chance, McGavick, who worked for Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) before entering the private sector, said he would have liked to learn more about the ports deal. Unlike most members on both sides of the aisle, he refused to rule out the Middle Eastern company, which has vowed to sell its stake in U.S. port operations.

“The whole thing was a wonderful illustration of the current partisan poisoned environment and the lack of thoughtfulness,” McGavick said. He added: “It reminds me of ‘Casablanca,’ and the famous moment where the guy’s stuffing his winnings in his pocket and he’s shocked to find there’s gambling. We’re shocked to find out that there are foreigners running the ports. Hey, welcome to the world. This has been going on for decades.”

That McGavick has refrained from attacking the incumbent head-on — unlike, say, Senate challengers Bob Casey Jr. (D) in Pennsylvania and Mike Bouchard (R) in Michigan — has not been lost on the opposition.

Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), observed that McGavick has been 10 to 30 points down in the polls but has avoided telling voters why they should replace Cantwell.

“We don’t know too much about who Mike McGavick is,” Singer said, pointing out that in a previous life McGavick was a lobbyist. “He talks about being against the deficit. Well, everyone’s against the deficit. The question is: What’s his plan for fixing the deficit?”

A GOP poll conducted in February showed that McGavick had the support of 40 percent of voters, compared to Cantwell’s 48 percent. Twelve percent of voters in the Strategic Vision survey were undecided.

McGavick suggested that the political climate might not be as tough for Republicans in Washington as it is elsewhere. Despite President Bush’s low polls numbers — the same Republican poll gave him a 31 percent approval rating — McGavick noted that Republicans are still upset about last year’s contested gubernatorial contest.

“The other thing to know about Washington is it’s not a blue state,” McGavick said. “It’s a red state surrounding a blue space.”

Like other “red states” such as New York and Illinois, where New York City and Chicago voters tend to steer election outcomes, McGavick may find that Seattle voters overwhelm his natural base in the eastern part of the state. Republicans counter that McGavick, coming from Seattle, is well-positioned to win.

McGavick spokesman Elliott Bundy said McGavick is the first Republican in years to run a statewide campaign out of Seattle.