Darcy Burner, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray

(WOMENSENEWS)–“I’m here to talk about strong women leaders,” said Claudia Balducci, city councilwoman for Bellevue, Wash.

The crowd in the Bellevue High School gymnasium erupted in cheers. Minutes later, those cheers became an enthusiastic roar as three female Democratic senators–and one congressional hopeful–took to the stage in this upscale Seattle suburb.

It was a rally for U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, who just won her Sept. 19th Democratic primary and is facing a tough re-election battle in Washington against a well-funded Republican challenger, former Safeco Insurance CEO Mike McGavick.

Sharing her limelight was Darcy Burner, a Democratic political newcomer who is challenging Republican freshman Rep. Dave Reichert in Washington’s 8th congressional district. Reichert, a former King County sheriff, is known as the man who caught Gary Ridgeway, the “Green River Killer” who during the 1980s killed dozens of women, many of them prostitutes, in the Seattle area.

Joining Cantwell and Burner at the podium were Washington’s senior senator, Patty Murray, and California Senator Barbara Boxer.

Hand Recount in 2004 Race

Washington’s 2004 gubernatorial race–in which Democrat Christine Gregoire beat Republican Dino Rossi by 129 votes in a hand recount–left Republicans eager to recoup their footing. They saw McGavick as their best chance.

Federal Election Commission data show that as of Sept. 15, Cantwell has raised $16.8 million and spent $9.7 million, leaving her with $5.1 million cash on hand. McGavick, meanwhile, has $2.8 million cash on hand after raising $7.3 million and spending $4.5 million. However, McGavick’s personal wealth has been boosted by a $28.4 million compensation package from Safeco, which he could tap into at any time. Both candidates are self-financing their campaigns.

But the McGavick campaign has blundered recently. His public admission of a 1993 arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol was initially viewed as a savvy effort at candor. When news reports later revealed contradictions in McGavick’s confession, however, Cantwell’s lead began to widen.

The latest Rasmussen poll, conducted Sept. 6, shows Cantwell with 52 percent support compared to McGavick’s 35 percent.

Washington State Republican Party Chair Diane Tebelius remains upbeat. “Republicans have put up a very good candidate. He is working hard, albeit in a tough environment.”

Even Sen. Boxer told the crowd at Bellevue High not to take anything for granted. “Maria is in a tough race,” she said. “She’s winning by a lap. But any minute, her opponent could write a big check, and we know what that means: attack, attack, attack.”

Two Women in Senate

Re-electing Cantwell is important, Boxer said, because like California, Washington state is represented by two Democratic female senators, and there are only nine women in the entire U.S. Senate.

Six years ago, Cantwell beat Republican Slade Gorton by the razor-thin margin of 2,229 votes to become Washington state’s junior senator.

In that race, she used some of her own wealth to fund her campaign.

A former executive with RealNetworks, a Seattle-based Internet music and video company, Cantwell became a millionaire during the dot-com boom thanks to her stock options. But the Internet bubble deflated and she entered her re-election campaign with a smaller war chest.

She also has a problem with Democrats angered by her 2002 vote in favor of going to war in Iraq and her 2001 vote in favor of the Patriot Act, which expanded U.S. law-enforcement powers and is controversial for infringing on civil liberties.

Early in the primary race, some antiwar voters were backing Mark Wilson, who dropped out of the race in July and accepted a job on Cantwell’s campaign paying $8,000 a month.

Some antiwar voters are also gravitating to former Black Panther Aaron Dixon, who will be on the November ballot on the Green Party ticket.

“Maria Cantwell is clearly better than Mike McGavick on some issues,” said T.J. Johnson, a city councilmember from Olympia. “And if I limit my vision to the immediate I would certainly vote for her. But my interest is in the long term, and that is precisely why I will vote for Aaron Dixon in November.”

When it was Cantwell’s turn to speak, she put her arms around Murray and Boxer. “These are my gal pals,” she said, grinning. “They are so much fun to work with. But, it’s tough to be in the minority.”

Burner Raises Dem Hopes for House

Democrats, meanwhile, hope Burner will succeed in her bid for a seat in the U.S. House, which has 435 members, only 67 of whom are women.

State GOP Chair Tebelius, however, doubts voters will forsake Reichert. “Here we have a guy who has 30 years’ experience versus a lady who may be very nice, but is 30 years old,” she said. “It’s a hard sell.”

In the two-month, pre-primary reporting period of July and August, Burner raised $311,980 to Reichert’s $198,043, the third straight period for which she came out on top. Her lead in individual contributions was nearly 2-to-1.

An August 27-29 phone poll by Constituent Dynamics showed Burner leading Reichert with 49 percent support compared to his 46 percent; the margin of error was 3.1 percent, making it neck-and-neck.

“We started with zero name recognition versus the sheriff with tons of name recognition,” said Burner campaign spokesperson Jaime Smith. “It’s definitely a race people are paying attention to; the New York Times says it’s one of 16 races to watch.”

“Fifteen years ago, campaign finance was a barrier for women being elected against male incumbents,” said David Olson, a political science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Darcy Burner is very skilled at knowing where the sources of money are.”

Burner said she is inspired by those who have gone before her. She recalled when Sen. Patty Murray first ran for state senate, she was told that she couldn’t do it because she was “just a mom in tennis shoes.”

“When I decided to run, I had a number of people say, ‘You can’t run, you’re just a suburban soccer mom.’ And I thought, ‘You know, I think we’ve heard that somewhere before!'” The recollection drew thunderous applause at the Bellevue rally.

“We’re excited to have a large number of women on the ballot across the country,” said Amaya Smith, deputy press secretary of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C. “If we do take back the House or Senate, it will be on the backs of our women candidates.”

Jennifer Zahn Spieler is public affairs editor for The Sitting Duck, an independent newspaper in Washington state.

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For more information:

Women’s eNews Spotlight on 2006 Midterm Election Races:

Maria Cantwell for US Senate:

Darcy Burner for Congress:

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