Republican Chris Vance is betting voters are fed up with partisan gridlock in Congress. But it remains to be seen if Washington state voters will buy his arguments against Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who has worked across the aisle on high-profile issues.
In an election that’s given us presidential candidates bragging about the size of their hands, Chris Vance wants to talk about compromise, more specifically Simpson-Bowles, which is not a virus or scandal, but a dusty bipartisan plan to reduce national debt.
Vance, a Republican challenging incumbent U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, has made the $19 trillion debt the top priority of his low-budget, “pissed-off moderate” campaign that’s heavy on issue papers and attacks on “hyperpartisan gridlock.”
A former chairman of the state Republican Party, Vance contends Murray, a four-term Democrat, is the kind of entrenched politician responsible for congressional dysfunction and gridlock.
For Vance, it’s a way of trying to appeal to angry voters, including a big slice of them who might be turned off by his “Never Trump” stance.
Murray has anticipated that line of criticism. Most of her statement in the state Voters’ Guide addresses her efforts to “break through the gridlock” on two issues. With considerable fanfare, she worked with House Speaker Paul Ryan in 2013 on a federal budget to avert a government shutdown. Last year, she teamed with Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander to rewrite the maligned federal education law known as No Child Left Behind.
When she met with the GOP’s Ryan, she said, “The first thing we talked about was how we had to restore respect in this country to a democracy that says compromise is OK.”
Vance may face a bigger challenge than poking through Murray’s defense. Some question if he’ll be able to reach enough voters with his message. Vance has raised $293,000 in campaign contributions, compared with Murray’s $11.4 million (with Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing employees accounting for her top contributors).
“He really doesn’t have the resources to make his argument to the point that people are going to hear it, because he’s not going to be able to go big time on TV,” said Todd Donovan, a political-science professor at Western Washington University. A GOP challenger needs $8 million to $10 million to run a competitive statewide race against an incumbent like Murray in a Democratic-leaning state, Donovan said.
Forecasters at respected publications such as the Cook Political Report, The Hill and The Washington Post don’t list the race as competitive. Even Washington’s former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a fellow Republican and a fan of Vance, said he faces a “very much uphill climb.”
The top two candidates in the Aug. 2 primary election will advance to the November ballot.
There are 15 challengers on the ballot besides Vance. They include three Democrats, three Republicans and representatives of the System Reboot, Human Rights, Lincoln Caucus, Independent, Conservative and Libertarian parties. Twelve have no elected experience. The other three have not won positions outside their party organizations. Twelve have reported raising no campaign funds. The other three have raised less than $15,000 among them.
Digital media strategy
Vance admits that in previous years he would have said a campaign like his stands little or no chance.
He believes, though, that this unpredictable year is different. His campaign will reach voters, he said, through Facebook and digital media with low-cost targeted messages. And voters are hungry, he said, for his truth-telling about “zombie politicians” in both parties.
But while Vance, 54, complains about Murray and others in the “professional political class,” he is no novice.
He began working in the state Senate right out of college, was elected to the state House of Representatives at 28, then to the Metropolitan King County Council. In 2001, he became head of the state party. He quit that post five years later and opened a consulting and lobbying business. He’s also worked as a special assistant to the state superintendent of public instruction and a part-time lecturer at the University of Washington.
It was his UW students, he said, who prodded him into running rather than just whining about cliché-spouting, me-first politicos and their unwillingness to compromise for the nation’s sake.
Gorton said Vance probably finds his campaign “liberating.”
In a recent talk at an Issaquah retirement community, Vance told the seniors he was a Reagan Republican, but didn’t shy away from his embrace of the Simpson-Bowles plan, even though it includes raising the Social Security retirement age (to 68 by 2050) and raising the cap on taxable income for Social Security, now at $118,000. Such changes are often considered toxic among seniors.
He has staked out moderate positions on immigration, supporting the so-called Gang of Eight Senate compromise that was killed by conservatives in the House. It would have improved border security while giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. He has also pledged not to vote for federal laws that would overturn Washington state law on abortion rights, marriage equality and legal marijuana.
He has even called Murray a “good, decent, honest person” and “skilled lawmaker.” But she blames only Republicans for problems in Congress, he said, and both parties need new leaders. (Murray ranks third among Senate Democrats.)
Vance points out that he’s also called her “Hillary Clinton’s Siamese twin.” (But unlike Clinton, Murray was one of 21 Democratic senators who voted against the Iraq war.) And he linked her to the mounting national debt; he sees reducing it as a way to stimulate economic growth.
Donovan, the WWU professor, wonders if Vance’s unorthodox campaign is really about him doing a favor to the party establishment by stepping up to run and restore the mainstream GOP brand.
“There’s some truth to that,” Vance said. “It’s important that the true Republican voice be heard in this election cycle.”
Murray: Disagree, but with respect
To Murray, what’s missing most in politics these days is respect, including for one’s opponents. “You can disagree with people, and I do,” she said. “But to disrespect them is something I find very troubling today.”
After Congress shut down the government in 2013, she and Ryan found common ground as football fans (she gave him a signed Russell Wilson jersey), became friends and soon were texting each other. Their work was hailed by the Brookings Institution as a model of deliberative negotiation.
On education, she and Alexander came up with a 601-page bill that gave the states more discretion in setting standards for accountability and intervening in underperforming schools. It also reduced federal involvement in matters such as teacher evaluations. The bill overwhelmingly passed the Senate, leading former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to say Murray was probably the Democrats’ “best legislator.”
“I took respect for Paul Ryan and Lamar Alexander into those rooms. It’s how we got things done. It’s how a democracy has to work. That’s the lesson I want for the country and the world,” she said. “I want my grandchildren to know that just because you yell and use profane language you don’t get what you want.”
But Vance said Murray and Ryan didn’t address the debt and just “kicked the can down the road” on it.
Murray replied that the economy was still fragile from the recession when Simpson-Bowles recommended both federal spending cuts and tax increases in 2010. She embraces the plan’s balanced approach, she said. “But it is hard to come out of an economic collapse and do it in a large way without impacting people’s budgets.”
She said she “respects” the principles of Simpson-Bowles but doesn’t agree with all of them, including raising the retirement age. Murray said she favors trying to create better pension options for workers before working on changes to entitlement programs.
Vance has also complained about recent congressional inaction on funding a response to the Zika virus.
After President Obama made his request for $1.9 billion in February, Murray noted that she partnered with Republican Sen. Roy Blunt on a $1.1 billion Zika appropriation that sailed through the Senate.
But problems surfaced when the bill went to the House, she said. GOP leaders added provisions that most Democrats couldn’t accept, she said. They included a provision to fly the Confederate flag in veterans cemeteries and to cut funding for Planned Parenthood. “That was a nonstarter,” she said, “particularly for a disease transmitted to pregnant women.”
GOP leaders blamed Senate Democrats for balking. Democratic leaders blamed the GOP for putting “poison pills” in their legislation, an assertion supported by mainstream media. “I’m deeply disappointed” in GOP leaders, Murray said. “This is a solvable problem.”