By Chris Grygiel
The Associated Press
SEATTLE — Patty Murray is Washington’s senior U.S. senator and has mostly coasted to re-election over four terms, but Chris Vance thought 2016 was a prime opportunity to defeat the Democrat.
Vance hoped his message of fiscal discipline and social moderation would resonate with state voters long turned off by the Republican Party. And he figured the political climate would be especially challenging for Democrats as the party tried to win its third consecutive presidential election.
“2016 should have been a big Republican wave election,” said Vance, a former state GOP chairman and King County councilman. “Well, a whole bunch has changed. …Trump drowns out everything.”
As Vance enters the final weeks of his race against Murray, he hopes the controversies surrounding Donald Trump don’t drown out his message.
Vance says the “establishment” Murray is responsible for congressional gridlock and the failure to address deficit spending and shore up Social Security and Medicare.
Murray, first elected in 1992, dismisses Vance’s criticism and points to her work with Republicans on the budget and education as examples of how she can accomplish things in a tough environment.
“I came to Washington, D.C., to fight for the interest of my state,” Murray said. “I didn’t come back here to complain or stop things.”
In 2013, Murray worked with Rep. Paul Ryan, now the Republican House speaker, to craft a national budget deal between the two parties that included some spending increases in 2014 and 2015 in exchange for extending budget caps further into the future.
Murray also collaborated with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, on an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind law. Murray has said the rewrite lifted punishment the federal government held over Washington public schools and returned more accountability to the states.
Washington state no longer has to seek waivers, which grant flexibility for strict federal policies, under the new measure. It also returns control of about $40 million in federal dollars to local school officials.
If re-elected, Murray said one of her next priorities will be higher education and addressing high tuition costs and onerous student loans. She said she, too, gets upset by the lack of legislative action on key issues but continues to work to break impasses.
“I’m as frustrated as everyone by the inaction that Congress puts in our face all the time,” she said. “I get up every day to solve problems.”
One of the most contentious issues among Democrats is the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the 12-nation trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 other nations that has not been ratified by Congress. Hillary Clinton has come out against the pact, as have many labor groups.
Washington is one of the most trade-dependent states, but Murray says she has yet to make up her mind.
“There are good things in this trade deal,” she said, adding enforcement of the labor and environmental provisions would be key.
Murray is already one of Washington state’s longest-serving senators and has steadily risen in power in the nation’s capital. She’s the ranking minority member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and sits on the appropriations panel. If Democrats take control of the Senate, she could possibly chair the Appropriations Committee or the HELP panel.
Vance, who hopes to use Murray’s seniority against her, acknowledges running for statewide office is always difficult for his party, which hasn’t won a Senate race in Washington since 1992 and hasn’t elected a governor since 1980. And Vance said Trump has made his Senate run even more problematic.
Early on, Vance disavowed the bombastic New York businessman, who Vance and other political observers believe will alienate moderate suburban voters they need to be competitive.
“There is no way I would ever vote for Donald Trump,” said Vance, who was criticized by some Republicans for abandoning their party’s standard bearer.
However, since then, both the party’s gubernatorial nominee, Bill Bryant, and incumbent Republican U.S. Rep Dave Reichert have said they won’t support Trump.
Vance ultimately hopes to appeal to swing voters, saying “climate change is real” and vowing not to work to overturn state laws that legalize abortion, marijuana and same-sex marriage.
He says Murray, a top lieutenant for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, is too partisan.
Vance is at a decided disadvantage when it comes to having the resources to spread his message, and he is counting on debates to draw a contrast between him and Murray. According to the last Federal Election Commission reports, filed in July, Murray had raised more than $7.4 million; Vance had just over $300,000.
Vance admits the negative tone of this year’s election has been dispiriting, especially the division among Republicans.
“This is the most unpleasant election ever,” he said.