SPOKANE, Wash. – Patty Murray was first elected to the U.S. Senate from Washington state in 1992 during the “Year of the Woman,” motivated to run for higher office in part by the contentious Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
At that time, Murray was the self-professed “Mom in Tennis Shoes,” advocating for working families and outraged by the way an all-male Senate committee questioned Anita Hill when she said Thomas had sexually harassed her.
Now Murray, 71, is one of the Senate's most powerful members and seeking a sixth term at another inflection point for women following the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide.
“Before Roe v. Wade was overturned, people could make their own choices,” the Democrat told The Associated Press. “I want a country where everyone can make their own choices.”
Murray's campaign has spent more than $1 million to run television ads since June blasting her Republican rival Tiffany Smiley for supporting Roe v. Wade's reversal. Observers say the fact that the longtime incumbent is up so early with aggressive, negative messaging against Smiley shows Democrats' concerns about the political environment for incumbents, even in a blue state like Washington that hasn't elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1994.
Murray and Smiley will appear on the same nonpartisan Aug. 2 primary ballot, where the top two vote-getters advance to the general election.
Cornell W. Clayton, a political scientist and director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Service and Public Policy at Washington State University, said Murray remains the favorite to win in November but faces challenges.
“In particular she has to worry about Biden’s negative approval ratings as a drag and the economy and inflation putting the electorate in a pretty sour mood,” Clayton said.
Smiley, 41, is a first-time political candidate and mother of three who has highlighted her past advocacy for her husband, a military veteran who was blinded in an explosion while serving in Iraq.
She has raised plenty of money for a newcomer. She recently announced her campaign had raised $2.6 million in the second quarter of 2022 and had $3.5 million in cash on hand. Murray reported raising $2.6 million in the same quarter, with about $6.6 million in the bank at the end of June.
Smiley, a former nurse from Pasco, Washington, said the Supreme Court’s decision leaves it to voters in each state to decide if they wanted to allow abortions. Smiley said she doesn't support a nationwide ban on abortion, despite what Murray has contended in her ads.
“She’s resorting to misleading scare tactics. It shows desperation,” Smiley said. “There is one extreme politician in this race. It’s Patty Murray.”
Smiley, like many other Republican candidates looking toward a general election, has tried to downplay Donald Trump's lies about a stolen 2020 election while nodding toward the large group of GOP voters who fervently believe the former president's false claims.
While acknowledging Democrat Joe Biden is the president, she says that the 2020 election “raised serious concerns for voters” and that “we need to ensure confidence in our elections" — despite the fact that numerous federal and local officials, a long list of courts, top former Trump campaign staffers and even Trump's own attorney general have all said there is no evidence of the voter fraud he has alleged.
Clayton said Smiley’s strategy appears to be focusing less on policy and more on turning the race into a referendum on Democrats.
Smiley, said Clayton, “is a better, more likeable, less extreme candidate than some other GOP Senate nominees this cycle ... so it will be harder to paint her as a radical MAGA-world Republican.”
Smiley said she hears about economic issues on the campaign trail more than she does about abortion.
“We face an inflation crisis, an energy crisis, a crime crisis and a baby formula crisis – and Patty Murray is missing in action,” Smiley said.
Murray, meanwhile, is also highlighting her efforts to help middle-class families, saying there should be more tax cuts for middle class people than for corporations. She has risen to chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and is a member of Democratic leadership.
In her sixth term, she wants to combat inflation, lower prices, provide child care and deal with supply chain issues, among other priorities.
“The last few years have been so tough on people,” Murray said, adding she wanted to use her “energy, expertise and power” to get positive results.
Early this month, Murray visited a Planned Parenthood clinic in Spokane to denounce the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe.
Murray noted that five times as many patients might soon seek care at clinics in eastern Washington after an abortion ban in neighboring Idaho goes into effect.
“The staff here is already seeing an uptick of patients,” Murray said. “And Republicans have made it abundantly clear they won’t stop here — they want a federal ban on abortion.”
Smiley worked as a triage nurse until her husband, Scotty, was permanently blinded in Iraq in 2005. She quit her job and flew to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to be by his side.
Smiley says she worked tirelessly to stop the Army from pushing her husband, a West Point graduate, into a medical retirement. Instead, he became the first blind active-duty officer in the Army, and is featured in her political ads.
Tiffany Smiley went on to become an author, speaker and consultant and contends it is time for a new senator.
“I was 11 when Patty Murray was first elected,” Smiley said. “Patty Murray has lost touch with Washington state families.”