WASHINGTON -- Just when you thought you had seen the last of the ceaseless TV attack ads and the campaign signs were finally coming down, there are stirrings about the 2012 Washington Senate race.
And speculation about whether Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, with only $312,000 in the bank, is vulnerable.
Cantwell, her staff and even some Republicans think she won't have any trouble raising what she needs, even though she doesn't accept money from political action committees. She had about the same amount of money at the same point in her last re-election effort and went on to raise about $14 million in two years.
"It's not a problem," Cantwell said in an interview. "Now we need to get busy."
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There are some cautions.
"An incumbent without a lot of money is not that intimidating," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the Cook Political Report who tracks Senate and other races.
And the financial bar could be higher in 2012.
Though final numbers won't be available until the end of the year, the just-concluded Senate race in which incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray beat GOP challenger Dino Rossi cost about $40 million combined.
Murray raised more than $12.4 million and Rossi about $6.4 million, according to the latest reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
And independent groups, including political party committees and newly formed groups that don't have to disclose their donors, spent another $19.6 million, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group.
Money aside, even some top Republicans think Cantwell is in a good position as she seeks re-election.
"A lot of people will say, if you couldn't beat Murray in a Republican wave, what makes you think you can beat Cantwell," said Chris Vance, a former chairman of the state GOP turned political analyst.
Vance said he realizes Cantwell might not have a lot of campaign cash on hand, but said she could always use her own resources.
Before being elected to the Senate in 2000, Cantwell was an executive with a high-tech company. Her campaign still owes her nearly $2.2 million from a personal loan she made to her first campaign.
Duffy said she doesn't feel Cantwell is among the top five most vulnerable Senate Democrats. "She may not even be in the top 10. Washington state is tough for Republicans," she said.
Democrats are defending 21 seats in 2012 and Republicans just 10. Two independents who generally caucus with the Democrats are also up for re-election.
Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna could be the strongest Republican candidate in a statewide race, but Vance said he's expected to run for governor, not the Senate.
"We'll likely have a red hot race for governor and a not-so-hot race for the Senate," he said.
Other possibilities to challenge Cantwell include the four Republican House members from Washington: Dave Reichert, Doc Hastings, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and newly elected Jaime Herrera. But Vance said few believe any of the four will run. Tea party supporter Clint Didier and John Stanton, a former telecom executive, are also mentioned, Vance said. "The bench isn't real deep," he said.
Ron Dotzauer, a political strategist who ran Cantwell's 2000 campaign, said it will also help that President Obama will top the ballot in Washington, where he is still fairly popular.
Cantwell should also benefit from what is likely to be a stronger economy and the Republicans' focus on the governor's race, he said.
"They haven't had a governor in Washington state in almost three decades," Dotzauer said.
As for money, he said Cantwell "knows how to raise it."
Cantwell said there is one lesson she took from the Democratic losses in this election -- jobs, jobs, jobs. "We ought to spend every moment thinking about jobs," she said.
To emphasize her point, Cantwell pulled a quote from an opinion piece by Bob Herbert that appeared in The New York Times almost a year ago. She made copies of it and literally taped them to the walls around her office suite as a reminder to her staff.
The quote reads: "The Democrats still hold the presidency and large majorities in both houses of Congress. The idea that they are not spending every waking hour trying to fix the broken economic system and put suffering Americans back to work is beyond pathetic."
Cantwell had pushed for passage of legislation designed to provide $30 billion in credit to stimulate small businesses. The legislation was approved by Congress and signed by the president just before the election despite Republican efforts to defeat it.
"Having been in the private sector, I know government doesn't create jobs," she said. "But the government has policies that can help."
Cantwell also has been a key backer of legislation to provide tax breaks and other incentives to spur development of such alternative energy sources as wind and solar. She said green energy could be a $6 trillion sector of the economy.
"It will be bigger than the internet," she said, adding that it's one area where there could be employment opportunities ranging from engineering to building wind turbines and solar arrays. "We are talking about millions of jobs."
* Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008; firstname.lastname@example.org