With a Republican wave in the midterm-election forecast, the eyes of the country will likely turn to Washington state Tuesday night to see just how far the GOP tide reaches.

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With a Republican wave in the midterm-election forecast, the eyes of the country likely will turn to Washington state Tuesday night to see just how far the GOP tide reaches.

The close race between three-term Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican challenger Dino Rossi is among a handful of contests — such as California, West Virginia and Nevada — that will determine whether Republicans pick up the 10 seats they need to take a majority in the U.S. Senate.

“If they want that 10, it’s a must-win,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan national political newsletter. “I may be sitting around at 3 or 4 in the morning trying to figure out where this is going.”

It’s not just the Senate race. Up and down the ballot, Republicans hope to chip Washington’s image as a Democratic stronghold with their strongest showing in more than a decade.

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“It better be, and it will be,” state Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser predicted.

If the votes fall their way, Republicans could pick up a majority of the state’s nine congressional seats for the first time since 1998. The GOP is poised to reduce and conceivably overtake Democratic majorities in the state Legislature. And voters may repudiate Democrats on the state budget by repealing taxes on candy and pop and restoring a two-thirds legislative-vote requirement for tax increases.

Still, Democrats hold out hope Washington will prove a bulwark against the national GOP wave.

“Are we the lone oak tree in the middle of the flood that doesn’t get pushed over? I think we are,” state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said.

The stakes should be apparent to just about anyone who has switched on a TV or opened their mailbox in the past month. Just counting the Senate race, close congressional contests and several controversial initiatives, well over $100 million has been poured into political campaigns here. Tens of millions have been dropped by national political committees, including conservative groups that have kept their donors secret.

The Democrats’ plight in Washington state may have seemed unthinkable two years ago, when President Obama took nearly 58 percent of the vote here.

But midterms frequently turn against presidents. And with the state’s unemployment rate holding at 9 percent, it’s little wonder voters aren’t happy with the direction of the state or country.

Republicans have capitalized on that, stoking doubts about the new health-care law and blaming the Obama administration for failing to turn the economy around despite billions in stimulus spending.

“I think the Republicans have done a very good job here, locally. However, the Democrats are losing this election, we’re not winning it,” said Chris Vance, a political consultant and former chairman of the state Republican Party. “The country has soured on Obama and the Democrats — you can argue about why, but they have.”

Democrats argue that Republicans have cynically opted to obstruct Obama on virtually every issue instead of genuinely working to solve the country’s ills.

“There is nothing positive for the Republican agenda. They don’t have an idea or a dream. It’s all the politics of no,” said Blair Butterworth, a veteran Democratic political consultant.

Still, the voter discontent explains why Murray is running neck-and-neck with Rossi, the former state legislator and two-time gubernatorial candidate.

Meanwhile, Republican Jaime Herrera appears poised to beat Democrat Denny Heck in the race for retiring Democrat Brian Baird’s seat in Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District. Democratic Congressman Rick Larsen finds himself in a hard fight with Republican challenger John Koster in the 2nd District of Northwest Washington. Even underdog Republican challenger Dick Muri has moved within striking distance of 9th District Congressman Adam Smith, according to one recent poll.

Though voters may be sick of the endless stream of negative TV ads and robo calls, they’re clearly engaged.

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed predicts a statewide voter turnout of 66 percent — the highest for a midterm election in 40 years. Through Friday, King County already had received about 336,000 ballots of the 1.1 million sent out.

With polls showing independent voters mostly breaking for Republicans, Democrats are looking to their base to salvage the election.

Look no further than the Senate race, where Murray has invited a stream of Democratic icons to fire up loyalists. President Obama headlined a rally at the University of Washington this month, his second visit on Murray’s behalf. Former President Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden also stumped here in recent weeks.

In particular, Murray has appealed to Democratic women voters who long have been a key part of her base. One day last week, she stopped by an abortion-rights-group phone bank and an energetic rally with nurses at Seattle Central Community College.

At the nurses rally, Murray showed she still connects with her key supporters as a “mom in tennis shoes” — even after 18 years in the U.S. Senate. Trading hugs with nurses, she listened to their stories about how the new health-care law will help patients.

“I really, truly see her not as ‘politics.’ I see her as a community member, as a mom,” said Susan Tekola, a nurse at Harborview Medical Center. “She’s making such a big difference, coming so far and still being that same person.”

But Rossi has worked to make the case Murray really isn’t the same person who went to D.C. in 1992. His recent TV ads spotlighted Murray’s contributions from lobbyists and some of her campaign commercials that have been called “false” and “grossly malicious” by some newspapers.

He said his talks with small-business owners and others show the public is fed up with big government and earmarks.

“We’re in a good position right now to win this race,” he told reporters last week. “What we’re finding is resonating with folks is the spending [that is] out of control, and Senator Murray has been at the helm of this as an appropriator.”

With virtually all of the state voting by mail (about 29,000 people in Pierce County still will go to the polls), the outcome of the Senate race and other close races may not be known until more than a week after Election Day.

Matt Barreto, a political-science professor at the University of Washington, said his recent polling suggests Democrats likely will prevail in the Senate and congressional races, in part because tea-party voters don’t seem as motivated in this state as they do in others. But win or lose, he said, Democrats should stand warned.

“Even though they may be able to win Washington state, they shouldn’t take it for granted,” Barreto said. “This election is going to show that voters are more open to listening to Republicans on the issues.”

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

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