OLYMPIA — Democrat Maria Cantwell has easily won re-election to the U.S. Senate from Washington state in previous years, but as she seeks her fourth-term this November she is facing her most recognizable opponent.
Republican Susan Hutchison, who spent two decades as a Seattle TV news anchor before leading the state Republican party for five years, says people are looking for change.
“Eighteen years is a long time for anyone,” said Hutchison, a strong supporter of President Donald Trump who drew national attention in 2016 after confronting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at the Republican National Convention and calling him a traitor for not endorsing Trump in his convention speech.
While Cantwell is a strong favorite to win in November, she says she’s not taking anything for granted. She captured more than 54 percent of the vote on last month’s primary ballot, in which she appeared with 28 challengers. Hutchison secured her spot in the general election with 24 percent of the vote.
Cantwell said voters value experienced representation in Congress and this year are paying attention to everything from the trade debate to health care and access to public lands.
She noted she’s fought the Trump administration on efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but also cited bipartisan bills she’s worked on, including a low-income housing tax credit she co-sponsored with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch.
“I do think you have to be collaborative, I do think you have to work across the aisle,” said Cantwell, who’s known for her work on energy and environmental issues and is the top Democrat on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy at Washington State University, said even though Hutchison is a recognized name in the state, she has an uphill battle in not only trying to take on a Democratic incumbent in a state where Democrats hold most statewide offices, but doing so in a year where Democratic voters appear to be turning out in force.
It’s been nearly a quarter century since the GOP has captured a major statewide race in Washington. The last time voters sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate was 1994, when Sen. Slade Gorton was re-elected to his final term before being ousted by Cantwell in 2000. The last Republican governor of Washington state, John Spellman, was elected in 1980. Republicans hold both the secretary of state and state treasurer’s offices.
Cantwell has also outraised her challenger, drawing about $7.5 million to Hutchison’s $545,000, according to the latest campaign finance data.
Cantwell, a former tech executive who previously severed one term the U.S. House and six years as a state representative in the Washington Legislature, beat Gorton in that 2000 race by just 2,229 votes. Her win margin increased significantly in her next two elections, and she garnered more than 60 percent of the vote in her 2012 re-election bid.
Voter Bonnie Blake from Chehalis said that she supports Cantwell because she agrees with her stances on the environment and women’s issues. She said she believes there is greater enthusiasm among Democratic voters in House and Senate races across the country this year “because many of us believe our democracy is at stake.”
“We’re losing the checks and balances that is part of our Constitution, part of our history,” she said.
Hutchison said some of the top issues she would address if elected are military readiness and strengthening immigration laws. She doesn’t think Republican candidates face additional challenges this year because of the current tenor of national politics.
“I definitely think that the president’s policies are affecting all of us and they’re affecting us for the good,” she said. “When you look at the economy, it’s gangbusters.”
Maureen Branstetter of Spokane said that she was voting for Hutchison because she’s impressed with both her values and previous work for the state party.
“She can voice her opinions well,” Branstetter said. “She is not intimidated by getting out in public.”
The Washington State Debate Coalition has scheduled two debates between the candidates next month, which Hutchison has said she will attend. The Cantwell campaign said that due to the current vote schedule in the Senate she can’t confirm participation with the coalition debates, but said that other invitations are being considered and that her intention is to participate in two debates before the election.
AP writer Nicholas K. Geranios contributed from Spokane.