U.S. Senate: Murray, Rossi

There’s no doubt about the top two choices in primary race for senator

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For all their differences — which will influence the most crucial decision Washingtonians will make in the summer primary — Patty Murray and Dino Rossi share one attribute: superiority over a crowded field of candidates for senator. Murray is the three-term incumbent Democrat and arguably the state’s most powerful member of Congress. Rossi is the most popular Republican in the state and a leader over Murray in one recent poll.

Among 15 entries, these two politicians are the class of the field. Voters would benefit from a battle between them in the Nov. 2 election. The Columbian endorses both in the Aug. 17 top two primary (ballots were mailed Wednesday). Only one other challenger — Tea Party idol and Sarah Palin endorsee Clint Didier — has emerged as viable. He posted a 48 percent to 45 percent edge over Murray in a recent Rasmussen Reports poll. But the farmer and former football star can’t keep pace with Rossi, who raked in $1.4 million in his first month of fundraising and bested Murray in the same poll by the same margin. Fewer than 10 percent of poll respondents showed interest in other candidates; clearly, this is a two-horse race, three tops.

This is a keystone clash, nationally. The GOP has seized upon soaring discontent and, hoping to lessen or reverse Democrat control of the Senate, they’ve targeted Murray as ripe for replacement.

What makes this race so intriguing is an issue that Murray claims is the No. 1 reason to re-elect her, but which Rossi insists is the No. 1 reason to replace her. She calls them “targeted local investments.” He uses the more popular term: earmarks. According to publicola.net, Murray this year secured 191 earmarks valued at $223 million. She told The Columbian’s editorial board: “If you opt out of fighting for the regional investment, it’s not like the budget gets reduced by any amount of money. There’s a number of senators who are quite happy to have our region opt out of those local investments.”

True, but Rossi’s response heralds the kind of balanced-budget attitude that could (should, we say) subdue the spending stampede. It’s quite simple, Rossi says: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing through the normal budgeting process.” Two elements in his reform plan are a presidential line-item veto and, if Congress can’t balance a budget, at least place a ban on earmarks until it can.

Remember, as a state senator (1996-2003) Rossi balanced the budget. He’s a private-sector business leader, and when it comes to cutting the deficit, specifically reining in governmental salaries, benefits and pensions, Rossi is much more likely to tackle the problem than Murray is.

Rossi’s argument loses steam when he is presented with a choice that voters understand but which he refuses to address: If federal funding for a project was vital to his constituents, and there was no other way to secure it except through an earmark, would he then reluctantly accept an earmark? Through spokeswoman Jennifer Morris, Rossi refused to answer the question, which she said was only a hypothetical. No, it’s an easy-to-understand, yes-or-no question. Rossi’s constituents deserve a clear answer.

Murray’s pork production has benefited Clark County and Southwest Washington in many ways, especially in funding for the new bridge, Vancouver’s waterfront redevelopment and the Port of Vancouver. But a high-altitude view reveals this rampant ornament-grabbing as a root cause of the burgeoning federal deficit. Some say the earmarks process is what it is. Others like Rossi say let the change start now.

Despite their weaknesses, Murray’s and Rossi’s numerous strengths warrant a fall showdown. To review other Columbian endorsements, visit www.columbian.com/news/opinion. A roundup of endorsements will be appear on Sunday’s Opinion page.