Republicans say they can win a U.S. Senate race in Washington for the first time in more than a quarter-century despite the state’s Democratic lean and Sen. Patty Murray’s 30 years of incumbency.
They have a point, analysts say, but the path to victory is very narrow.
Less than nine months until Election Day, Murray enters her race against Republican Tiffany Smiley — a veterans advocate who has won the state GOP’s endorsement — as a heavy favorite, but one grappling with a difficult political climate for Democrats that has driven down President Joe Biden’s approval ratings while driving up conservative enthusiasm.
They’re the type of Republican-friendly conditions some experts say reminds them of 2010, when Murray won re-election by less than 5 points against former GOP state Sen. Dino Rossi in what remains her closest election since winning her Senate seat in 1992.
“It’s very likely Murray gets re-elected, but it’s not an ironclad safe seat,” said J. Miles Coleman, a nonpartisan analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “If the national environment gets bad enough, you could have some surprises, and this could be one of those surprises. Murray can’t take this race for granted.”
Last month, Coleman shifted the Center for Politics’ rating of the Washington Senate race from “safe Democratic” to “likely Democratic,” citing the possibility of a Republican wave in November.
Other national outlets that handicap Senate races continue to consider the Washington race as “safe Democratic.” And Democrats, who are trying to retain their slim 50-seat majority, say they aren’t concerned about the well-funded Murray in a state that hasn’t voted for a GOP presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan.
“Washington hasn’t sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1994, and handing Mitch McConnell the Senate majority is not a popular proposal in a state President Biden won by 20 points,” said Patrick Burgwinkle, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Strategists in both parties say much of the attention on Senate races this year will be focused on a group of first-tier battlegrounds that include Georgia, Arizona, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Nevada, all states Biden won by single-digits during the 2020 campaign.
But parties that hold the White House have traditionally suffered steep losses during the midterm election, including in districts and states once considered safely under their control.
And national Republicans say they are laying the groundwork in Washington to help Smiley take advantage of a potential wave should it materialize in November.
That includes a recent meeting between Smiley and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, according to Smiley, who said the two spoke for more than 30 minutes. Smiley said she talked with McConnell “about how great to have Washington state be the seat that flips the Senate in November.”
The Republican National Committee began last year setting up a field operation in the state, officials with the group said, the first time the organization had made an on-the-ground commitment to the state in recent memory. The RNC opened a Hispanic engagement center in central Washington earlier this month, officials said, and plans to open an Asian-American engagement center in King County later this month.
Sen. Rick Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, also hosted a fundraiser for Smiley last year, and officials with the group say they have helped put her in touch with national donors while helping coordinate the campaign’s message and research.
Republicans in D.C. say that they plan to watch the Washington race closely, even if they have yet to become directly involved, hopeful that the favorable environment can help Smiley break through.
“We’re keeping an eye on Washington state,” said Jack Pandol, spokesman for the super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, which has close ties to McConnell. “In an environment like this, with a challenger like Tiffany Smiley, I wouldn’t be resting easy if I were Patty Murray.”
A spokesperson for Murray’s campaign said that the campaign remains confident that Smiley’s conservative positions are out of touch with Washington voters.
“Senator Murray is laser-focused on lowering families’ costs as she fights for an economy that works for all of Washington state, not just those at the very top,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “As Republican Tiffany Smiley has made clear, she’s running to flip the Senate and put Mitch McConnell back in power and back his agenda: raising taxes on seniors and retirees, attacking people’s health care — including reproductive rights — and handing out big tax breaks for huge corporations rather than holding them accountable.”
Smiley, for her part, said that she thought the political climate in 2022 would be better than it was in 2020, driven by concerns about rising inflation and crime in the state. She singled out suburban women as a group of people she thinks will find her campaign appealing.
“I understand why there are skeptics,” the Republican said. “Patty Murray has never been more vulnerable, and the political climate has never been more favorable.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Smiley said she supported coronavirus vaccines but not government mandates for them and did not support a controversial proposal from Scott to raise federal taxes on poorer Americans. She said she wants the United States to be “smart and strategic” about the assistance it provides Ukraine, arguing the United States should provide additional “air-defense systems” to the country but stopping short of calling for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone.
Smiley also said she has yet to make up her mind about whether she’d vote to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson, whom Joe Biden nominated for the Supreme Court.
But she said she was concerned by accusations from Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri that the federal judge was too lenient toward sex offenders. (White House officials have vigorously disputed Hawley’s criticism, calling it factually inaccurate and desperate.)
She also said that although she has not been in communication with former President Donald Trump, she would welcome his endorsement.
“If the president wants to support us, that’s awesome,” Smiley said.