WASHINGTON – With voters beginning to cast their ballots, Washington’s U.S. Senate race is a virtual dead heat, with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray holding a 1-point lead, 48-47 percent, over Republican challenger Dino Rossi among likely voters, according to a McClatchy-Marist poll released Tuesday.
The outcome could determine whether Republicans pick up the 10 seats they need to regain control of the Senate. The poll was taken late last week as almost all Washington voters received their mail ballots and began voting.
“This is indeed a cliffhanger, any way you carve up the numbers,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which conducted the survey.
“The road to a Republican majority in the Senate could go through Washington state.”
Other recent polls have shown a volatile race, with Rossi having a slim lead in some and Murray up by 6 to 8 points in others.
Murray, who ranks fourth in the Senate Democratic leadership and is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is seeking a fourth term. Though she’s had strong challengers in the past, this is by far her toughest race. Rossi, a former state legislator and a businessman, has run twice unsuccessfully for governor.
Rossi has had strong support from the GOP establishment in Washington, D.C., which was instrumental in convincing him to run. As opposed to some Democratic candidates elsewhere, Murray remains an outspoken supporter of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus measure, health care overhaul and Wall Street re-regulation.
Among all registered voters, Murray held a larger lead, 47-42 percent, but Miringoff said that likely voters indicated they’d almost certainly vote and that they reflected a more accurate picture of the race.
If Washington’s race is as close as the poll shows, the outcome could take days or weeks to determine. Rossi lost his first race for governor by 133 votes. It took 58 days to determine a winner, and then a court case challenging the outcome stretched into early June of the following year.
Washington has a history of close races. Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell won her first race for the Senate by 2,229 votes in another contest that took weeks to resolve.
“It does remind you of Florida in 2000 if it happens,” Miringoff said of the presidential campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush, which ultimately was resolved by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision.
Forty-seven percent of Washington state registered voters surveyed said they are independents, 32 percent Democrats and 21 percent Republicans.
Tuesday’s poll found Democrats lined up overwhelmingly behind Murray, Republicans overwhelmingly behind Rossi and the crucial block of independent voters breaking for Rossi by 57-36 percent.
There was a major gender gap. Women supported Murray 55-41 percent, while men supported Rossi 53-41 percent.
Forty-nine percent of likely voters have favorable impressions of Murray and 44 percent unfavorable views, the poll found. Forty-six percent of voters have favorable impressions of Rossi and 46 percent unfavorable ones.
Murray had a 17-point lead over Rossi in King County, which is vital for Democrats who are running statewide. Rossi was running strong, 59-35 percent, in conservative eastern Washington. The two were in a virtual tie in the greater Puget Sound region, and Rossi held a narrow lead on the Olympic Peninsula and in southwest Washington.
President Barack Obama is due to visit Seattle Wednesday and Thursday to campaign for Murray. Voter support for Obama has grown tepid in the state, though not as cool as in other states. He won Washington state by more than 17 points in 2008. The poll found that 48 percent of likely Washington voters approve of the job the president is doing and 46 percent disapprove.
On the economy, 46 percent said they thought that the worst had yet to come, and 42 percent said the worst was behind the country. About two-thirds of Murray’s supporters said we’d turned the corner, while two-thirds of Rossi voters remain pessimistic about the economy.
“In many ways their candidacies are mirror images,” Miringoff said.
Washington’s likely voters are skeptical about the tea party. Only 32 percent support or strongly support it, less than many other states with close Senate races, including Pennsylvania, Colorado and Wisconsin.
“That could account for why Murray is hanging in there, while Democrats in these other states aren’t doing too well,” Miringoff said.
This survey of 834 Washington state registered voters was conducted Thursday through Sunday. Registered voters were interviewed by telephone in proportion to the voter turnout in statewide elections in each county. Telephone numbers were selected based on a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the state. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. In an effort to increase coverage, this land-line sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cell phone numbers. The land-line and cell phone samples then were combined. Results are statistically significant within 3.5 percentage points. There are 589 likely voters. The results for this subset are statistically significant within 4.0 percentage points. The error margin increases for cross-tabulations.