Can Tiffany Smiley get 44% of the U.S. Senate vote?

One of Washington’s U.S. Senate seats is on the November 2022 ballot, and Tiffany Smiley is the GOP nominee.

She was more or less anointed in the primary; all the other entries were nobodies, and none got 10% of her votes. She’s a political nobody, too, having never run for any public office before.

Back in March 2022, before the primary, I pointed out (here) that Republicans had already “thrown every big name they have” at Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who’s running for a 6th term, and after 2012 gave up.

Revisiting the past when Republicans were still serious about defeating Murray, U.S. Rep. Rod Chandler got 46% against her in 1992, when she first ran for the Senate as a little-known state senator; and Dino Rossi, who was better known statewide than Chandler from having run twice for governor, got 47% against her in 2010. Her other three GOP opponents were two sitting U.S. House members and a GOP state chair, none of whom got over 43%.

In March, when it was still early in the 2022 campaign season, I wrote that it was “hard to know who will subject themselves to the humiliation of defeat this time,” but noted the press was treating Smiley as “the leading GOP candidate; actually, the only GOP candidate,” which is the way it turned out.

I also noted, “She has a compelling personal story: She left her first career as a triage nurse after her husband, an Army officer, was blinded by a suicide bomber in Iraq. Today, she’s an ‘author and motivational speaker,’ and styles herself as a ‘veterans advocate.'” That’s a pretty good, actually very good, biography for a novice candidate trying to break into politics; but my sense is the importance of personal biography, like character, has withered in politics, which is much more ideology-driven now.

In September 2020, when Loren Culp was tilting the gubernatorial windmill in Washington, I defined (here) a political “human sacrifice” as follows:

“But in politics, the term ‘human sacrifice’ is often applied to unserious candidates who not only have no chance of winning, but no chance of making a respectable showing. They’re typically nominated as ballot filler in hopeless races.”

Culp was a crank, but Smiley doesn’t fit this definition. She’s a serious candidate with an attractive personal story (she was a nurse, and is now a motivational speaker and caregiver for her war-disabled veteran husband). Nevertheless, she’s a sacrificial candidate who has no chance of winning. The only question for speculation is whether she can get 44% of the vote.

This is a significant number in Washington politics, because any idiot running in a statewide race is almost guaranteed 42% of the vote simply by having an “R” after their name. We can take the 38.77% that Trump got in 2020 as an absolute floor on the Republican vote in this state, which is comparable to the 38.23% a nobody named Richard Pope got against state attorney general Christine Gregoire in 2000 (4 years later, Gregoire defeated Rossi for governor).

Being an established GOP politician without Trump’s liabilities usually gets you to 42%. Culp, despite being a loony, outperformed by getting 43%, setting a marker Smiley needs to beat to not look silly by underperforming Culp. That’s how and why I chose 44% as her goal.

So now let’s consider whether she can get there. On a national level, Republicans probably won’t invest a lot of money in this hopeless race, so Smiley is largely on her own.  Trump being toxic in this state, she doesn’t want him to campaign for her, but she avoids alienating his supporters by dancing around the question of whether Biden won the 2020 election (see story here). Stuck with these givens, can she break above 42%?

This is speculative, of course, but to make our best educated guess let’s look at the polls here. Of course polls are just polls, and only November’s vote totals can tell the real story, but until then polling is the best and only information we have to go on.

There’s always variation among polls, but only Trafalger (a GOP-leaning poll which tends to overstate GOP support) rates her above 43% (giving her 46%), and only 2 other polls (of 10 total) have her matching Culp’s 43% result. So it’s not looking good for her. This can’t be explained by her lack of name familiarity, because Culp was an unknown, too.

Maybe this just isn’t a Republican year.

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