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May, 4th 2011

Bad numbers for Maria Cantwell

– Liz Mair

A new Elway Poll released yesterday contains some bad news for Sen. Maria Cantwell.  Just 40 percent of the 405 registered voters surveyed say she's doing an "excellent" or "good" job, while 52 percent say she's doing an "only fair" or "poor" job.  Compare that to an equivalent point in 2005, just ahead of her last re-election, and it represents a significant slide: Then, 52 percent said she was doing an "excellent" or "good" job, and 38 percent said she was doing an "only fair" or "poor" job.  Those are numbers that have some Republicans in Washington hopeful, once again, about picking off a Senate seat, though other numbers in the poll hint at why those same Republicans might not want to hold their breath.

46 percent of those surveyed in this poll would re-elect Cantwell, while 36 percent would replace her, a near replication of the numbers she carried around this time in 2005, when more voters thought she was performing well as a senator.  So, like last time, the poll shows Cantwell maintaining a 10-point advantage over "somebody else"-- and that's the real key here.  Cantwell beat Republican opponent Mike McGavick 57 percent to his 40 percent last time around.  A ten point gap is a ten point gap, except when it turns into an even bigger gap.  Cantwell has some experience of exploiting opponents' vulnerabilities, flaws and weaknesses to run up her numbers, so at a minimum, to keep that gap as small as possible and make this race competitive, Republicans had better start planning now to put forward a highly credible, top-notch candidate-- and even then, get ready for disappointment.

Washington Republicans always want to believe both Cantwell and Patty Murray are beatable.  However, Cantwell typically maintains the better numbers of the two, making her more secure, anyway, setting aside what numbers like those from Elway indicate (see the latest Survey USA numbers showing the two essentially tied with just under 50 percent approval among adults sampled, but Murray with a higher disapproval rating).  Murray, for her part, demonstrated last year that even though Cantwell's numbers tend to look more robust than hers, even in the toughest electoral environment seen by Democrats for years, Washington is blue enough that Democrats running statewide can eke out a win if they are aggressive and attack, attack, attack.  The reality is that in another tough cycle, with the right candidate, it might be possible for a Republican to edge Murray. However, Cantwell is less likely to be defeated and you'd have to be looking at pretty bad conditions bound to make voters sour on even the most ideologically compatible incumbents, some sort of massive scandal, and-- as indicated above-- a really stellar Republican candidate running against her to oust her. The priority for Republicans right now should be finding that person, because a lot can change environmentally in 18 months and you never know when a politician is going to get themselves in trouble (ask Claire McCaskill).

I'll just say this now: That description ("really stellar") does not apply to Susan Hutchison or Clint Didier, in my opinion.  It could characterize Dave Reichert or Rob McKenna (if he were to decide to run for Senate, which I think is not remotely likely), but I really doubt either of them takes a hard look at this race unless a bunch of other numbers start cropping up that suggest real sour sentiment among voters, and more vulnerability than what we're seeing with regard to Cantwell right now.  It could happen, but I wouldn't bank on it.

For those wondering, the Elway Poll has a margin of error of +/- 5 percent, and was conducted April 25-27. [intro]

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