WASHINGTON — Among the people Republican Don Benton consulted before announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in early February was Dino Rossi.
Rossi, a friend of Benton's and arguably Washington's most prominent Republican, gave no hint that he might have designs on running himself.
Then came a spate of polls suggesting that Rossi could be competitive in a race against incumbent Sen. Patty Murray. That in turn prompted national Democrats to dust off the Rossi dossier and even launch a mock campaign Web site depicting him as a financial opportunist who consorts with shady businessmen.
Benton isn't so much exasperated that Rossi — who hasn't declared his candidacy but hasn't ruled it out, either — is monopolizing precious publicity. Instead, Benton is stumped why Rossi simply won't say whether he's in or out and end the speculation.
"There is no advantage" to staying undecided, said Benton, a fourth-term state senator from Vancouver and onetime head of the Washington State Republican Party. "It hurts all the other candidates. It even hurts your own candidacy."
With the Aug. 17 primary looming closer, perhaps no one is more eager for Rossi to make up his mind than the 11 Republicans vying for the opportunity to oust Murray.
Rossi's high-profile dillydallying has curtailed the challengers' ability to raise money, as potential donors hedge their picks. What's more, each passing day cuts into Rossi's time to mount a Senate race, which costs more than $4 million on average for even a losing campaign. Actually winning a Senate seat usually costs twice as much.
Chris Widener, a Preston motivational speaker and author, said he would drop his bid for the Senate if Rossi were to run.
Rossi "would be our best chance at defeating Patty Murray," Widener said. "And I'm not running against him. I'm running against Patty Murray."
Widener and his wife, Lisa, have been friends with Rossi since they joined the same baby-sitting co-op as new parents in 1992. The two men have remained close, and Widener said he speaks to Rossi regularly.
Yet, Widener said, he's just as much in suspense as anyone about Rossi's intentions.
"I think he really, truly is undecided," Widener said.
While Rossi's eldest daughter is in college, he still has three children at home, Widener noted. And running for Senate, he said, demands fortitude from the family as well as the candidate.
"Look what the Democrats did to him already, trying to destroy his reputation," Widener said.
June 11 filing date
Widener said he has seen no indication that Rossi is assembling even an informal campaign staff. Mary Lane Strow, communications director for the first of Rossi's two unsuccessful bids for governor, resurfaced recently as his spokeswoman. But Strow said she is donating her time and is not on a retainer.
Strow acknowledged that this is unusually late for any would-be candidate to be deliberating.
"It's a big decision," she said.
Rossi repeatedly has pointed to the June 11 filing cutoff date as his ultimate deadline. But there are few recent precedents for anyone winning a Senate seat after such a belated campaign.
Of the nine people nationwide who were first elected to the Senate in November 2008, for instance, all but one began campaigning the previous year, said Eric Ostermeier, who writes the Smart Politics blog at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
The last entrant was Alaska's junior senator, Mark Begich. The former Democratic mayor of Anchorage waited until late February to challenge incumbent Sen. Ted Stevens, then under investigation for corruption and later convicted of felonies for allegedly hiding more than $250,000 in gifts and renovations to his Girdwood home. A federal judge later overturned the convictions, citing prosecutorial misconduct.
He "can afford to wait"
Nonetheless, Rossi's two bruising faceoffs against Gov. Chris Gregoire have earned him valuable statewide experience and the ability to reassemble a campaign infrastructure quickly.
"He's the kind of candidate who can afford to wait," said Stu Rothenberg, a veteran political analyst in Washington, D.C., and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report.
Rothenberg is skeptical the national anti-incumbent backlash would swell enough in Washington state to topple Murray, running for her fourth term. Still, Rothenberg said, "Rossi could put the race in play."
Defeating Murray would require overcoming formidable odds. Murray possesses the two key predictors for victory: She has piles of money, and she's already in the job.
Murray has hauled in nearly $8.8 million for her re-election. That's close to the average of $8.6 million spent by winning U.S. Senate candidates in 2008. Benton, in contrast, has raised about $120,000 in two months.
Courting tea party
Another candidate, former NFL player Clint Didier, of Eltopia, Franklin County, said he has taken in about $350,000. Didier, Widener and Benton all say the uncertainty over Rossi's decision to a degree has hampered their fundraising.
Didier, who runs a farm in the Columbia Basin and owns an excavation company, has actively courted votes from tea-party supporters. Among other things, he said he favors undoing the health-care law, abolishing the Department of Education and drilling for more oil.
"I am a true conservative Republican," said Didier, who has recruited Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman Jr. as his finance chair.
Didier is counting on voter contempt for career politicians to sweep neophytes such as him into power.
Yet, prying a sitting senator out of office is a daunting feat. Congressional incumbents win an overwhelming majority of races, said Dave Levinthal, an editor with The Center for Responsive Politics, an independent research group in Washington, D.C., that tracks money in politics.
Even during the "Republican revolution" that ushered the party into power in Congress in 1994, incumbents won 83 percent of Senate races while the margin in the House was 90 percent, Levinthal said. "Incumbency is often the strongest obstacle for any challenger," he said.
With the exception of Benton, the dozen other Senate challengers for Murray's job — including two independents — are touting their lack of political experience as an asset, not a handicap. The aspirants include a philosopher and a theologian, an energy trader and a real-estate broker, and a chiropractor.
Paul Akers typifies the field. Akers co-founded and owns FastCap, a Bellingham manufacturing company. Like many of the candidates, Akers is fueled by opposition to the bailout of the banking, insurance and auto industries and other federal interventions.
Government "should be making people independent, not dependent," Akers said. Professional politicians "have failed us miserably."
Unlike most of his rivals, Akers has the deep pockets necessary to channel his anger into a potential Senate seat. Akers said his company has annual sales of $12 million and that he's prepared to shell out the money necessary to win. He is the only challenger so far to have aired both radio and cable-television advertising.
Dr. Arthur Coday, a Lynnwood physician in the race, also has aired radio spots.
Akers called Rossi with a message two months ago. Regardless of whether Rossi jumps into the fray, Akers said, "I told him I will stay in the race."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.