When it looked like a huge Republican wave was about to rise, Washington Sen. Patty Murray was among those facing the prospect of being swept away.
Murray, 71, has come a long way from his 1992 campaign, when the self-described tennis mom took on “guys in red ties and dark suits” and won an upset.
Now Republican Tiffany Smiley, 41, a mother of three, has the fresh face and edge of a Beltway outsider.
Smiley’s amazing fundraising and inspiring story as a triage nurse and advocate for disabled veterans like her husband is Republicans hope Washington will elect its first GOP senator since Bill Clinton was in the White House.
It could still happen.
But the Supreme Court’s June ruling striking down constitutional abortion rights has given Murray a vital lifeline as Democrats across the country increase his chances of overcoming incumbents who typically face midterm elections when their party is in the White House.
“It woke up a dormant Democratic electorate that either wasn’t paying much attention or was opposed to the ‘red tide’ and felt they were going to be crushed,” said Stuart Elway, a Seattle-based nonpartisan pollster. “It added a turbocharger to his campaign.”
The GOP still looks likely to take control of the House, with Republicans only needing to pick up five Democratic-held seats. But gains on the order of 35 or more seats, which once seemed quite plausible, are now out of reach.
Control of the 50-50 Senate appears to be a toss-up, better than Democrats thought before the high court pushed the abortion issue to the fore, handing regulation back to individual states. Since then, nearly half have limited or moved to ban the proceedings.
Democrats are betting huge on this issue.
The party has already spent an estimated $124 million on abortion-related TV ads this year, more than double the next number — character — and nearly 20 times what Democrats spent on abortion-related ads in the 2018 midterms. According to the Associated Press.
The investment in abortion-related ads was greater than the GOP’s combined spending on the economy, crime and immigration issues the party would rather emphasize, the AP reported.
Murray, who is seeking his sixth term, is among those who have most aggressively sought to take advantage of the Supreme Court decision. Abortion has been legal in Washington state since voters approved a 1970 ballot measure — more than two years before Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide.
“It would only take one vote in Congress to decriminalize abortion and punish women and doctors across the country, even in Washington,” a female narrator says forcefully and hyperbolically in one of Murray’s ads. (Passing a statewide ban would almost certainly require more than one vote, even if the Senate were tied 50-50, given the need for 60 votes to overcome a tiebreaker.)
“Don’t give them a chance,” the ad concludes. “Respond to Tiffany Smiley before it’s too late.”
The spot is part of a larger effort to paint Smiley, who calls himself “100% pro-life,” as extreme.
Murray has also released an ad filled with graphic images from Jan. 6 recounting his terrifying experience at the Capitol the day pro-Trump rioters tried to overturn President Biden’s victory. “Democracy,” says Murray solemnly, “is on the ballot.”
Like many blue-state Republicans, Smiley chose his path carefully in the primary, trying to avoid the MAGA label without incurring the wrath of the Trump faithful. After advancing under Washington’s top two system — he finished second to Murray — Smiley has done a bit of cosmetic surgery on his website, cutting out a section that questioned the integrity of the 2020 vote.
His most direct attempt to steer into the political center, however, came on a TV show where Smiley looks directly into the camera and declares his opposition to the federal abortion ban. (He has said he respects the will of Washington voters and the law they enacted decades ago.)
Amid soothing country tones as a guitar gently strums in the background, Smiley asks, “What is extreme? Thirty years in the Senate and nothing to show for it.
“Patty Murray wants to scare you,” he concludes. “I want to serve you.”
In the next spot, Smiley tackles his Democratic rival on crime and inflation.
“These doors are closed because it’s too dangerous to ask employees to work here anymore,” Smiley says, standing outside a shuttered, graffiti-scarred Starbucks in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. “You can’t even get a cup of coffee at a hometown store… even if you could afford it.”
The August primary saw unusually high turnout for women and young voters, part of a pattern across the country since the Supreme Court ruled on abortion.
Cathy Allen, a Democratic strategist who teaches political science at the University of Washington in Seattle, was surprised by the attitude of students who aren’t particularly enamored with either major party or how elected leaders have handled issues like climate change.
The abortion decision angered and energized them — “They have this sense of injustice,” Allen said — and spurred the otherwise discouraged or apathetic to vote.
Whether that passion persists or whether inflation and recession fears overtake the abortion issue and drag down Biden and his fellow Democrats will determine not only whether Washington gets a new senator, but also which party controls the chamber for the next two years.