Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington won her seat 30 years ago, campaigning as “the mom in tennis shoes.” But there’s another mom in contention, Murray’s 2022 Republican challenger, Tiffany Smiley—who is trying to convince voters it’s time for a change as she blasts Murray’s long record and presents herself as the new mom on the block—full of can-do energy and optimism, ready to pick up the baton and run with it.
Smiley is a former triage nurse who battled the Pentagon to allow her husband, blinded by a suicide bomber in Iraq, to continue to serve on active duty—breaking barriers for disabled members of the military.
Impressive stuff, to be sure, and the kind of biography that political stars are made of. Personally recruited more than a year ago by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Smiley filled the bill of a fresh face, a charismatic motivational speaker on veterans’ issues, and someone who could upset Murray in what was shaping up to be a Republican year.
The problem, for Smiley, is that the expected “red wave” is cresting, now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade and total abortion bans have become an electoral liability for the GOP.
She’s also got a “Big Lie” problem—which is to say she doesn’t want to publicly support Trump’s false assertion that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 election, but she doesn’t want to say it so explicitly that she offends the MAGA base.
It’s a tough needle to thread.
When Smiley was interviewed in September a year ago by Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter, she repeatedly declined to acknowledge that Biden won the 2020 election, foreshadowing her current ambivalence and prompting the publication to conclude she understands the challenge of running in a state Trump lost bigly in 2020.
And in a news clip that made the rounds in political circles, Smiley was asked three times by CNN’s Dana Bash if she considers Biden a legitimately elected president. Through a deer-in-the-headlights glaze, Smiley conceded that Biden is president, but stopped short of the “legitimately elected” part—thereby staying in MAGA’s good graces without being saddled with the “Big Lie” baggage.
With an eye on electability in the majority blue state of Washington, Smiley is also trimming her pro-life campaign rhetoric, supporting the Texas ban on abortion, but also saying it doesn’t fit Washington state, which has a 1991 ballot initiative on the books that legalizes abortion.
When Sen. Lindsey Graham this week proposed a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks, Smiley reiterated to Politico that she believes states should make these calls.
“Patty Murray has spent millions to paint me as an extremist,” Smiley says in a campaign ad. “I’m pro-life, but I oppose a federal abortion ban.” The ad is an effective counterpunch to the Murray campaign’s charge that Smiley would be a rubber stamp for McConnell, who has floated the idea of a federal ban if Republicans win control of Congress. “Patty Murray wants to scare you,” Smiley says in the tag line. “I want to serve you.”
Elisa Carlson, communications director for the Smiley campaign, was driving home from an evening reception earlier this month when she took my call. Asked about the confusion over where her candidate stands with Biden’s legitimacy, she replied sharply, “From our point of view, she answered the question yes. Acknowledging he’s the president is also acknowledging he is legitimately elected.”
She added: “She didn’t like answering three times… but she didn’t use the specific words somebody was trying to put in her mouth.”
On abortion, Carlson says Smiley has not changed her position. “Her position is pro-life, and she respects the decision the state of Texas made, and Washington State, too,”—where a 1991 ballot referendum narrowly passed with 50.14 percent of the vote to legalize abortion until the fetus is viable.
Like many Republicans facing a general electorate, Smiley is downplaying earlier themes like “election integrity”—which could be interpreted as casting doubt on the veracity of the 2020 election—removing it from her website. But there’s nothing to see here, either, said Carlson. “We’re in the process of rolling out policy initiatives. The website is updated weekly.”
Will “election integrity” reappear? “We will be rolling out new policy initiatives,” Carlson repeated.
Running in the primary, Smiley said it would be “awesome” to have Trump’s endorsement. Now, running in the general election, it’s less valuable. Nut Carlson wants inquiring minds to know, “Not having Trump’s endorsement doesn’t make you a moderate. We’ve never positioned her as a moderate. We’re focused on Washington state, we care about Washington state.”
Jessica Taylor follows Senate races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. She says Smiley is “one of the better Republican candidates they have this cycle. She has an incredibly compelling story,” and advocating for her husband the way she did, “anyone who has dealt with the VA (Veterans Administration) bureaucracy knows how difficult it is—and that she has impressive skills.”
Despite being “an excellent candidate,” says Taylor, Washington state hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate since 1994, and the last GOP governor was elected in 1980. Joe Biden carried the state in 2020 by 19 points.
“Too bad they can’t switch her out for Republicans in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia,” says Taylor. She would outshine any of the struggling GOP candidates in those battleground states while the climb to victory in deep blue Washington state is prohibitively steep by any conventional measure, and boosted by the abortion issue. “That’s why we’re keeping the seat solidly Democrat” in the Cook Political Report ratings, says Taylor.
Taylor cites last month’s “jungle primary” where the top two finishers—of any party—face off in November. Murray garnered 52.2 percent; Smiley 33.7 percent. If you add the other Democrats to Murray, and the other Republicans to Smiley in the multi-candidate field, Murray has 55.36 percent to Smiley’s 41.47. “Other polls show it closer,” says Taylor, “but this is the best poll—actual voters who voted” in the August primary.
With their candidates floundering in key senate races, Republicans are trying to expand the map of competitive senate seats. There’s a flurry of excitement around Smiley, but Democrats are not sounding the alarm. Biden’s approval rating is inching up and Matt Bennett with Third Way, a moderate Democrat group, says the president “would have to be down at his nadir for her to have a prayer.” Bennett adds, “She may run a little better than a nobody, but she’s not going to beat Patty Murray.”
If she were running in Ohio, she’d be a better candidate than JD Vance, or in Wisconsin, where GOP Sen. Ron Johnson is flailing, says Bennett. “Lucky for us, she’s in a blue state, not a purple state.”
The GOP has a potential star in Smiley, but she’s in the wrong state to get away with parsing both the abortion issue and the “election integrity” dance.
No one questions Smiley’s skill as the new mom on the block, but the winds of change that drew her to the race have shifted, at least for now, and it will take more than her considerable talent to vanquish a popular incumbent.