After a year as a Washington state senator, Michael Baumgartner, 35, is looking for his next job: the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Maria Cantwell. He's the only Republican running so far, but the GOP has yet to fully embrace him.

Share story

WASHINGTON — Michael Baumgartner has a résumé that says achiever.

The Pullman native is an economic-development expert and lecturer with a Harvard master’s degree. His career has stretched from Iraq to Afghanistan to Dubai to Saudi Arabia. He returned from abroad to Washington state in 2009 and by the following year was elected state senator — all before he turned 35.

Now after barely a year in Olympia, Baumgartner is already gunning for his next job: the U.S. Senate seat held for two terms by Democrat Maria Cantwell.

It may be his toughest challenge yet.

Since entering the race four months ago, Baumgartner, a Republican, raised just $120,000 through December. In contrast, Republican Dino Rossi hauled in $1.7 million in the first few weeks after he launched a losing bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Patty Murray in 2010. Baumgartner has no endorsements from national GOP leaders and no official backing from the state Republican Party.

Indeed, the most notable thing so far about Baumgartner’s candidacy arguably has been his sheer ambition as well as a recent brouhaha over his seeming criticism of Cantwell for being unmarried.

But barring a Senate run by U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, Baumgartner could end up as the Republicans’ best shot at reclaiming the Senate seat they lost 12 years ago.

Reichert has said he expects to decide soon whether to run again in the 8th Congressional District or take on Cantwell, who many political observers so far believe is headed for re-election.

Baumgartner, of Spokane, knows the long odds he faces as a Republican from Eastern Washington. Democrats control both chambers of the state Legislature, the governor’s office, both U.S. Senate seats and the majority of the state’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Washington Republicans have had a tough track record the last 30 years,” he said. “But I think we have better ideas and we just need to communicate them better.”

Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the state Republican Party, said he couldn’t judge whether Baumgartner is the strongest challenger the GOP will field against Cantwell, because he’s the sole Republican running thus far.

Wilbur said Reichert, a former King County sheriff, “would make a great candidate” if he decided to aim for the Senate. One of Reichert’s distinctions over Baumgartner, Wilbur said, is that Reichert “has a certain level of maturity.”

Still, Wilbur called Baumgartner a credible candidate who, if lacking in much political experience, “has a fire in his belly. And he’s smart.”

Christian Sinderman, a Democratic consultant who managed Cantwell’s 2000 campaign against then-Sen. Slade Gorton, said Baumgartner’s age needn’t be a disadvantage. Both Cantwell and Murray were a relatively youthful 42 when they entered the U.S. Senate.

Baumgartner’s main handicap, as Sinderman sees it, is that he’s simply too much of an outsider.

“He hasn’t spent time building relationships, even within his own party,” Sinderman said. “He’s reaching a little high. He simply can’t do it.”

International studies

Baumgartner says he relishes the chance to break the stereotype of conservatives as “closed-minded and intolerant” particularly in foreign policy. He has been crisscrossing the state, meeting voters on the luncheon-dinner circuit.

His erect bearing and short, salt-and-pepper hair give him a military air. His varied career has included stints working as counternarcotics adviser in Afghanistan for the U.S. State Department, vice president of a private consortium trying to start up a telecom network in Saudi Arabia, and 13 months at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq as an economics officer in 2007 and 2008.

Baumgartner caught the globe-trotting bug — he has visited six dozen countries — as a 12-year-old when his father, David, a forestry professor at Washington State University, took the family on a yearlong sabbatical to Japan and Europe.

In high school, Baumgartner won a summer scholarship to study in Jordan and Syria.

He graduated from WSU in 1999 with a degree in economics and spent the following year in Mozambique working with Jesuit priests, a period he calls one of the most fulfilling in his life.

He entered Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2000 to earn a graduate degree in public administration in international development. The 9/11 attacks shifted Baumgartner’s focus from Africa to the Middle East. His first post-Harvard job was as an economic-development adviser to the government of Dubai.

Baumgartner met his British wife, Eleanor Mayne, in December 2008 in Afghanistan while both worked on a program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development to distribute wheat seeds as an alternative to growing opium. The couple married in Spokane in October 2010.

A month later, Baumgartner defeated incumbent state Sen. Chris Marr, despite raising $120,000 less cash than his Democratic rival. Marr and Baumgartner spent $1 million combined, one of the biggest sums ever dropped on a legislative race in Washington.

Even during that contentious race, Marr accused Baumgartner of having designs on Congress. Baumgartner denied it. He says it wasn’t until after he and Mayne consulted with a number of people last summer that he decided to run for U.S. Senate.

Where he stands

Baumgartner’s positions, especially on fiscal policy, hew to conservative doctrine. He admires U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, and calls “very interesting” Ryan’s proposal for switching Medicare into a government voucher plan under which seniors would shop for private coverage on their own.

Baumgartner also believes that governments can no longer afford the kind of generous public pensions enjoyed by people like his retired father.

“I think we should have a government we can pay for,” Baumgartner said.

At the same time, some of his views diverge from that of many Republicans. For instance, Baumgartner supports a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem. And he has been calling for a speedy end to the Afghan war.

But Baumgartner created his biggest stir when he voiced support for the Obama administration’s overruling of the Food and Drug Administration to prevent girls 16 and younger from obtaining the Plan B emergency contraceptive over the counter. President Obama personally endorsed the decision, which keeps the “morning after pill” available without prescription only to those older than 16.

The move outraged many health-care providers, who said Plan B is safe and effective in reducing unplanned pregnancies. Cantwell and Murray were among a group of Democratic lawmakers who demanded scientific justification for the Obama administration’s move.

Baumgartner pounced, calling Cantwell “extreme” and “a lot farther to the left that most Washingtonians are comfortable with.”

He pointed out that Cantwell is unmarried and “has frequently voted to undermine the role of parents in child-rearing.” Baumgartner’s first child, Conrad, was born last June.

Baumgartner says he regrets the episode, saying that his point that Cantwell was more liberal than Obama was misunderstood.

And he’s forging ahead.

“Really, running an underdog, insurgent political campaign against an opponent many folks think can’t be beat, and going out and meeting folks and talking about your ideas for America and Washington is a lot of fun and a real privilege,” he said.

Seattle Times news researcher David Turim contributed to this report. Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or