Is abortion issue a lifeline that saves the Senate for Democrats? This race offers a test case
Back when it seemed a huge Republican wave was building, Washington Sen. Patty Murray was among those who faced the prospect of being swept away.
At 71, Murray is far removed from her plucky 1992 campaign, when the self-described mom in tennis shoes took on "the guys in red ties and dark suits" and won an upset victory.
Now it's Republican Tiffany Smiley, 41 and a mother of three, who has the fresh face and benefit of being a Beltway outsider.
Smiley's prodigious fundraising and inspiring back story, as a triage nurse and fighter for disabled veterans like her husband, has Republicans hoping Washington will elect its first GOP senator since Bill Clinton was in the White House.
That could still happen.
But the Supreme Court's June decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion has thrown Murray a vital lifeline, as it has Democrats across the country, boosting her chances of overcoming the undertow incumbents typically face in a midterm election when their party holds the White House.
"It woke up a sleeping Democratic segment of the electorate that was either not paying much attention or buying into the 'red wave' and feeling they were going to get crushed," said Stuart Elway, a nonpartisan pollster in Seattle. "It added some turbocharge to her campaign."
The GOP still seems likely to take control of the House, as Republicans need to pick up just five Democratic-held seats. But gains on the order of 35 or more seats, which once seemed quite plausible, now appear beyond reach.
Control of the 50-50 Senate seems to be a toss-up, which is better than it looked for Democrats before the high court thrust the abortion issue front-and-center by handing regulation back to individual states. Since then, nearly half have curtailed or moved to outlaw the procedure.
Democrats are staking a huge amount on the issue.
The party has already spent more than an estimated $124 million this year on TV ads mentioning abortion, more than twice as much as the next issue — character — and almost 20 times more than Democrats spent on abortion-related advertising in the 2018 midterm campaign, according to the Associated Press.
The investment in abortion-related ads was more, the AP reported, than the GOP's combined spending on spots relating to the economy, crime and immigration, which the party would rather emphasize.
Murray, who is seeking her sixth term, is among those who've most aggressively sought to capitalize on the Supreme Court decision. Abortion has been legal in Washington state since voters approved a 1970 ballot measure — more than two years before the Roe v. Wade ruling that had legalized abortion nationwide.
"It would only take a single vote in Congress to make abortion a crime and punish women and doctors nationwide, even in Washington," a female narrator says urgently — and hyperbolically — in one of Murray's ads. (Passing a nationwide ban would almost certainly require more than a single vote, even if the Senate remained tied at 50-50, given the need for 60 votes to overcome an inevitable filibuster.)
"Don't give them their chance," the ad concludes. "Oppose Tiffany Smiley before it's too late."
The spot is part of a larger effort to paint Smiley, who calls herself "100% pro-life," as extreme.
Murray has also run an ad filled with graphic images of Jan. 6 that recounted her frightening experience in the Capitol the day pro-Trump insurgents sought to overturn President Joe Biden's victory. "Democracy," Murray says solemnly, "is on the ballot."
Like many blue-state Republicans, Smiley carefully picked her way through the primary season, seeking to avoid the MAGA label without incurring the wrath of the Trump faithful. Since advancing under Washington's top-two system — she finished second to Murray — Smiley has performed a bit of cosmetic surgery on her website, excising a section that questioned the integrity of the 2020 vote.
But her most direct attempt to steer to the political center has come in a TV spot in which Smiley looks directly into the camera and declares her opposition to a federal abortion ban. (She has said she respects the will of Washington voters and the law they enacted decades ago.)
Set among soothing earth tones, as a guitar gently strums in the background, Smiley asks, "What's extreme? Thirty years in the Senate and nothing to show for it.
"Patty Murray wants to scare you," she concludes. "I want to serve you."
In a subsequent spot, Smiley goes after her Democratic rival by wedding the issues of crime and inflation.
"These doors are closed because it's too dangerous to ask employees to work here anymore," Smiley says as she stands before a shuttered, graffiti-scarred Starbucks in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. "You can't even get a cup of coffee from the hometown shop... even if you could still afford it."
The August primary saw an unusually high turnout of women and young voters, part of a pattern across the country since the Supreme Court handed down its abortion decision.
Cathy Allen, a Democratic strategist who teaches political science at the University of Washington in Seattle, was struck by the attitude of students who aren't particularly enamored of either major political party or the dilatory way elected leaders have addressed concerns 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 sort of passion persists, or inflation and recession fears override the abortion issue and drag down Biden and fellow Democrats, will determine not only whether Washington has a new senator, but which party controls the chamber for the next two years.
− Mark Z. Barabak is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, focusing on politics in California and the West.