Proving conventional wisdom wrong – the election of Sen. Pat Murray

John Fairbank

Patty Murray’s election to the U.S. Senate was built upon turning negatives into positives

In 1991, Patty Murray was a promising but virtually unknown first-term Washington state senator, barely more than three years removed from her service on her local school board.

Just one year later, she shocked the political establishment in both Washington, D.C. and Washington state by soundly defeating former U.S. Representative Don Bonker to become the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator. On November 3, she defeated moderate, pro-choice Republican Congressman Rod Chandler by a solid 55-45 percent margin, despite being outspent two-to-one.

Her victory demonstrates how the right person with the right message and a well-run campaign can win in the 1990s, even though — or perhaps because — that candidate lacks the “traditional” political assets of experience, money, name recognition, or inside connections.

Indeed, the key lesson from her campaign is that she won not only because she turned her liabilities into assets, but because she successfully portrayed her opponents’ experience and money — traditional political assets — as damaging liabilities.

Patty Murray’s outsider, middle-class image — the famous “mom in tennis shoes” — fit the voters’ mood. This was a case of image matching reality: Patty Murray really was a suburban mother who came from a distinctly middle-class background. The message and the messenger were one and the same.

And more, she was prepared with an insightful campaign plan developed by Beth Sullivan and Ed Zuckerman of the Campaign Design Group and executed by campaign manager, Teresa Purcell; our firm did strategic consulting and polling, the media was produced and targeted by Paul Kinney Productions. Patty Murray proved that it is possible to be a true outsider and have a professional, well-executed campaign.

Like many of the other women who sought a Senate seat last year, Patty Murray was inspired to run after watching the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee’s treatment of Anita Hill. She demonstrated her courage by entering the race in late 1991 as an unknown challenger facing the well-known, well-funded incumbent Senator Brock Adams.

Well after she declared her candidacy, Adams was forced to withdraw from the race after allegations of sexual misconduct appeared in a major Seattle newspaper. Murray’s determination continued to pay off as Gov. Booth Gardner, former Congressman Mike Lowry, and Seattle Mayor Norm Rice declined to run.

That left former Congressman Don Bonker, a “pro-business” liberal in the Paul Tsongas mold, as Murray’s main Democratic challenger. Bonker had retired from Congress in 1988 after spending a million dollars in a losing bid for the U.S. Senate against now-Governor Mike Lowry, and had become a D.C. business lobbyist/consultant. In short, he was a classic Beltway insider.

Patty Murray, on the other hand, was the very symbol of a citizen legislator fighting for change on behalf of average working families. The match-up worked perfectly to her advantage. Every reference to Bonker’s experience only reinforced his old-boy ties and her fresh perspective. And every reference to her middle-class background reminded voters of Bonker’s out-of-touch D.C. point of view. These images were reinforced in a classic moment in a debate when Murray noted that Bonker’s watch was still set on Washington, D.C. (East Coast) time!

Conventional wisdom wrote off her campaign as a quixotic quest by a person who wasn’t ready. What they failed to understand was that Murray was not obligated to play the game by the old boy’s rules. The current anti-incumbency mood among voters meant that Patty Murray did not need to prove that she had more experience than her male opponents; she simply had to demonstrate that she had enough experience to make her credible.

This point was crucial, and highly controversial. Murray’s opponents and most of the pundits argued that Murray did not have the look or feel of a “real” U.S. Senate candidate. Some urged that she change her style, re-focus her message, and run a more traditional campaign geared to her qualifications and experience.

Fortunately, she ignored this advice and stuck to her message. Kinney’s “mom in tennis shoes” commercial proved to be worth its weight in gold. The campaign began airing the ad very early outside of Seattle, an unusual step for a Seattle liberal such as Murray. In fact, the strategy was so successful that Bonker refused to believe the early returns from eastern Washington on primary election night showing him trailing Murray. But the highly targeted Murray message had decimated Bonker’s base and left him with pluralities in just a few southwestern counties.

Polling confirmed that her image and message resonated strongly, not simply in Seattle and its suburbs, but also with highly conservative voters in eastern and central Washington. This proved to be a highly effective general election strategy conceived and executed at a time when most observers felt her prospects in the primary were remote.

With her momentum buoyed by the success of other women candidates in earlier primaries — the late date of the Washington primary helped — she won a smashing first place finish in the open primary, finishing ahead of not only the other Democrats but also ahead of all the Republican candidates. She did, in fact, carry every region of the state, including eastern rural areas where liberals from Seattle are usually buried on election day.

The first place finish was a crucial part of the Campaign Design Group’s strategic plan. As anticipated, Murray’s victory drew an explosion of free media attention, earning her a huge bounce in the polls and a needed lift in fund raising. Her momentum surged.

With seven weeks until the general election, however, there was no down time. GOP nominee Rod Chandler was not a pushover: he was an experienced television performer and no right-wing extremist. His moderate voting record on social issues, like women’s rights, placed him firmly in the Evergreen State’s mainstream. His greatest vulnerability was that he was a “go-along, get-along” kind of guy without a strong record of accomplishments.

Murray’s big lead gave her the option of running out the clock and sticking to her original game plan. With Chandler running 20 points behind, he had little choice but to go negative against Murray, attacking her inexperience. Ironically, Chandler’s ads attacking Murray as lacking Washington political experience reminded voters why they like Murray and why they were mad at career politicians. Murray’s gender, middle-class background, and outsider status also provided her with a bit of a “Teflon” cover and helped her in the TV air war. Even when she responded with negative ads of her own, polls showed that huge majorities of voters believed that it was Chandler who was running the dirty campaign.

What does all this mean for other campaigns? First, when voters are eager for change, outsiders without the usual credentials can win if they make a virtue of their status. Second, in times when political outsiders are “in,” women candidates will have an advantage because they are generally seen as more honest and less tied to the special interests. Third, it can be difficult to run a tough negative campaign against a women: the chances of it backfiring are high. Finally, if you are running as an outsider against the political establishment, resist the advice that so many will give you to take on the trappings of traditional politics. Stick to your guns and run a campaign that plays on your candidate’s real personality and strengths.

As for Senator Patty Murray, she will have to be more than just a “mom in tennis shoes” to be re-elected in 1998. She must keep to her ideals, avoid being corrupted by the Washington, D.C. establishment of special interests, and deliver for the average working families of Washington state.

John Fairbank is a partner with Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates, a California-based polling and research firm.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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