Don Benton isn’t waiting to drive race forward

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Don Benton doesn’t do things halfway, and his current campaign for the U.S. Senate is no exception.

The Republican state senator took Clark County GOP leaders by surprise in February when he announced at the party’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner that he would enter the race to unseat Washington’s senior U.S. senator, three-term Democrat Patty Murray.

In a field of eight GOP candidates, Benton’s campaign quickly gained momentum. But three months later, his most formidable opponent is someone who hasn’t even entered the race: Dino Rossi.

In short order after his Lincoln Day announcement, Benton opened an office in Tumwater, put together a campaign staff, hired a prestigious campaign consulting firm and a social media guy, and began traveling the state in pursuit of endorsements and money. He’s running a TV ad in the Puget Sound market that accuses Murray of supporting Viagra for sex offenders. His interactive campaign website, http://www.bentonforsenate.com, features links that let supporters contribute to his TV advertising campaign ($25 for one second) or sign a letter to Murray telling her to repeal “government-run health care.”

At the Clark County GOP Convention last month, Benton’s showmanship was on display as he led a procession of family members and volunteers down the aisle and onto the Prairie High School stage and delivered a stump speech against a backdrop of signs proclaiming, “Don Benton — He Fights for Us!”

Benton loves the game of politics. His fundraising skills are formidable. His 17th District constituents have sent him to the state Senate three times, though political newcomer David Carrier tested him with a hard-fought campaign in 2008.

But can he win?

In this statewide primary race, Benton is competing with seven other Republicans vying to challenge Murray in the November general election. Clint Didier, an Eastern Washington farmer, former pro football player and self-described Tea Party activist, has raised far more money: $351,000 compared with Paul Akers’ $276,000 and Benton’s $121,000. Didier won the endorsement of ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin last week.

Candidates for statewide office from Clark County have had a notoriously hard time getting elected; in the 121 years since Washington’s statehood, only three have won statewide office, and two of those were elected in the 19th century.

Benton says that’s a nonissue. “Where a candidate comes from is secondary to what the candidate’s views and issues and positions are,” he said. “And Clark County is very different from where it was 10 years ago. Its population has increased dramatically.”

Clark County was a huge key in Republican Dino Rossi’s two campaigns for governor, he said, “and it’s always been key in the U.S. Senate race.”

Benton is the only elected official in the bunch this year, and early polls show he would be the most competitive declared candidate in a contest with Murray.

Rossi’s intentions

The wild card for Benton is Rossi. The former state senator, who came within 133 votes of defeating Democrat Chris Gregoire in 2004, is reputed to be the state GOP’s choice to take on Murray and has been courted by the national party in Washington, D.C. Some pundits believe Rossi would instantly rocket to the top of the GOP field if he decides to run.

Rossi hasn’t revealed his plans, and says he may wait until the June 11 filing deadline to do so. There’s speculation that he will use the June 10 kickoff of the state GOP Convention in Vancouver to make his announcement.

Benton admires Rossi, but he says his former colleague’s indecision is hurting fundraising for declared candidates and has called upon him to state his intentions. Clark County Commissioner Tom Mielke, a Benton supporter, echoed that call in a letter to Republican leaders last week, triggering a statewide debate.

“I think it’s way too late for Rossi,” Benton said Thursday. “There’s one thing you can’t get back in a campaign, and that is time.” Putting together a campaign staff, seeking endorsements, raising money — those things don’t happen overnight, Benton said, and entering the race this late in the game “severely inhibits any candidate’s ability to compete.”

In fact, though, the future of Benton’s primary campaign likely rests with Rossi’s decision.

“I think that if Rossi doesn’t run, Benton would win in the primary,” said Brent Boger, a GOP state committeeman from Clark County.

Asked whether he would drop out if Rossi jumps in, Benton gave his stock answer: “I entered the race to be the next U.S. senator from Washington, and I still have every intention of winning the primary and going on to win the U.S. Senate race.”

On the way up

Benton, a 53-year-old business consultant, husband and father of four, has never lacked for ambition. A year after his election to the House in the 1994 Republican sweep, he ran for House floor leader and proposed overhauling higher education governance in the state.

In 1996, after just one term in the House, he ran successfully for the 17th District Senate seat.

In 1998, he challenged Brian Baird for an open seat in the 3rd Congressional District — and lost by two percentage points in a bitterly contested race.

In 2000, Benton barnstormed the state in a campaign for state party chairman, a move that proved one of the most disastrous of his political career.

Since then, he’s been content to run for reelection to his state Senate seat three times.

So what kind of record has Benton made in Olympia?

In the Senate Transportation Committee, he’s been an unbending voice of opposition to light rail and a critic of the Columbia River Crossing project. Last year he sponsored a bill that would allow the use of state transportation funds for the bridge project, including a light rail bridge, only if Clark County residents approved a ballot measure supporting both tolls and the use of state money for the project. Benton reintroduced the measure this year, but like many of his bills, it failed to get a hearing in the Democrat-dominated committee.

On the Senate floor, Benton is an outspoken opponent of taxes who brags that he has never voted for a tax increase in his legislative career. He has formed a close alliance with activist Tim Eyman and blustered with outrage this year when Democrats voted to suspend Initiative 960, the voter-approved measure that required a two-thirds vote in each chamber to raise taxes.

Not a member of the GOP leadership, Benton shuns political niceties and relishes his role as a maverick. Yet he’s willing to cut a deal with Democrats to get a bill passed, as when he spent three years working for passage of the Chelsea Harrison Act, aimed at plugging a loophole in the state’s “three strikes” law that allowed a man convicted of killing a 14-year-old Vancouver girl to be free at the time of her murder. The Senate ultimately passed the measure unanimously and the House did so on a 92-2 vote.

Benton’s brief foray into party leadership began in May 2000, when he upset the Republican mainstream by winning election as interim GOP chairman. He changed the locks on the state party headquarters, fired the executive director, installed his own people, and made plans to move the state GOP headquarters from Tukwila to Olympia.

But he failed to get approval from the party’s executive board before he began the process of buying a vacant bank building in Olympia, and in December 2000 party leaders blocked the building’s purchase and asked Benton to resign as party chairman.

They also launched an investigation into his handling of at least $750,000 in unspent campaign donations. Party leaders were furious that Benton hadn’t spend that money to help Republican candidates in trouble, including U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who was narrowly defeated by Democrat Maria Cantwell that year.

Despite all that, Benton toyed briefly with campaigning to regain the post when a vacancy came up in 2006.

Missed votes

Benton has a higher-than-average number of missed votes on the Senate floor. In 2009 he missed 157 of 847 votes, the Legislature’s third-worst record. But he defends the missed votes, saying he’s often meeting with constituents or negotiating with House members on legislation when votes are taken. “I do this only when I already know that the votes missed are on issues where the outcome will not be affected by my absence,” he said.

Benton’s grandstanding in committee and on the Senate floor has earned him labels like “edgy,” “combative,” “highly partisan,” and a “master of intrigue.”

Former Democratic Gov. Gary Locke once called Benton “an arrogant blowhard.”

Benton makes no apologies for any of it, and he’s blunt about why he’s running to unseat Murray: “Because she votes in lockstep with President Obama on every issue without regard to what’s best for the citizens of Washington.”

On health reform, he asserts, “She took away every Washington citizen’s right to choose their own doctor and health care. I think that’s very arrogant. When a politician gets arrogant, it is time for them to go.”

Benton said he would have been honored to get Palin’s endorsement, but he adds, “I don’t think this race is going to be about endorsements. It’s about having the right track record, a record of standing up to government.”

“I am not swayed by the winds of the polling,” Benton said. “I have a core belief, a core value: Government is responsible for core functions and that’s it. They shouldn’t be doing all those other things because there will never be enough money to do it all. We are suffering from enormous debt related to the inability of the U.S. Senate to say no.”

Does he identify with the tea party movement? Benton answers this way:

“I think what the tea party embodies is that government should be limited. That has been my motto, my theme, during my time in public life.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523; kathie.durbin@columbian.com.