In her first re-election bid, Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell handily beat Republican challenger Mike McGavick. McGavick, a former insurance...

Share story

In her first re-election bid, Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell handily beat Republican challenger Mike McGavick.

McGavick, a former insurance executive, conceded defeat hours after the polls closed and national news outlets predicted Cantwell’s victory.

“A moment ago I participated in one of the great traditions in this democracy, and that is when you know you lost, you call the winner and congratulate them. So I called Maria Cantwell and congratulated her on her next term in the Senate,” he told supporters gathered in Bellevue.

Many political observers had once considered Cantwell vulnerable, based largely on her slim victory six years ago. Aided by voter discontent with Republicans, a big fundraising advantage, and muted liberal criticism over her 2002 vote authorizing force against Iraq, Cantwell never seemed to break a sweat during the race.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

A statewide poll conducted by the University of Washington in late October showed Democrats and Republicans backed their candidates with roughly equal support, but an overwhelming number of independents said they planned to vote for Cantwell.

With a blitz of television ads, Cantwell emphasized her record of environmental protection, promotion of clean-energy policies and support of Social Security.

A victory represented sweet redemption for the 48-year-old lawmaker from Edmonds, who lost her U.S. House seat in 1994 when Republicans swept Democrats from power.

Friends said the defeat was devastating for Cantwell, who retreated from the public arena until she ran for the Senate in 2000, narrowly beating incumbent Republican Slade Gorton.

Unlike in 1994, the political tides this year favored Cantwell, as Republicans sought to defend seats across the nation. Instead of pouring money into Washington state, the national Republican political committees left McGavick to fend for himself.

Two independent groups spent campaign dollars on McGavick’s behalf. The Trust in Small Business political-action committee of Alexandria, Va., bought spots on cable television, and the Bellevue-based American Political Action Committee ran anti-Cantwell bus ads.

A former chief executive of Safeco and top aide to Gorton, McGavick, 48, made civility his key campaign theme, saying Congress was poisoned by acrimony and finger-pointing. But, other than Cantwell, he never identified any lawmakers who ought to lose their jobs.

Addressing the House page scandal in early October, in which a Florida congressman was accused of sending sexually explicit messages to a teenaged page, McGavick said: “I don’t think you can fix a Congress that is out of control by sending the same people back. The whole culture back there is broken.” He then refused to say whether voters should retain House Speaker Dennis Hastert or any other Republican leader.

In terms of style, the biggest difference between the McGavick and Cantwell campaigns could be found on the Internet, where they both presented extensive Web sites.

On his blog, McGavick maintained postings from people critical of his ideas.

One writer said McGavick’s claim that Cantwell was the biggest spender in Congress was “embarrassing” considering Republicans wrote and passed the federal budget. Another man said he never voted for a Democrat but would stay home this election because McGavick “wants to turn his back” on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush.

Recognizing widespread unhappiness with the war, McGavick called on Rumsfeld to resign and said in a television ad that Bush “doesn’t understand our frustrations” about Iraq.

Cantwell never mentioned Iraq in her television ads, standing in sharp contrast to other Democrats running for election.

Her blog, written by campaign staffers, did not accept comments from either detractors or supporters.

Despite his extensive political background and public-speaking experience, McGavick may have committed a critical tactical error when his recollection of a 1993 drunken-driving incident was later contradicted by a police report obtained by reporters.

Cantwell, on the other hand, ran a tightly scripted campaign that left little to chance. She refused to answer questions about her fundraising or relationship with lobbyist Ron Dotzauer, who had borrowed money from Cantwell in 2000. Her early round of television ads stressed her work investigating gas-price gouging and other populist issues.

A long list of Democratic luminaries came to Seattle to stump for her, including former President Clinton and Sens. Barack Obama and John Kerry, who attended a Cantwell fundraiser minutes after defending his mangled joke about Iraq, which seemed to impugn U.S. troops.

The Massachusetts Democrat told a group of college students last week that people who don’t study and do their homework were likely to “get stuck in Iraq.” Kerry has since apologized, saying he botched a joke he meant to be about President Bush.

McGavick demanded to know what Cantwell thought about Kerry’s remarks. Cantwell released a statement expressing support for the troops but didn’t mention Kerry or his remarks.

Others on the ballot — Libertarian Bruce Guthrie, independent Robin Adair and Aaron Dixon of the Green Party — were far behind.

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.