Ron Wyden at a town hall in Milton-Freewater
Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) listens to constituent ask a question at a town hall in Milton-Freewater in April of 2017 (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Geor­gia is on the minds of Demo­c­ra­t­ic U.S. Sen­a­tors from the Pacif­ic Northwest.

The Peachtree State votes Jan­u­ary 5th on not one but two U.S. Sen­ate seats, with con­trol of Con­gress’ upper cham­ber up for grabs.

If Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lengers (the Rev­erend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff) eke out vic­to­ry, Democ­rats will grab con­trol of the Sen­ate for the first time since 2014.

The stakes in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., are enor­mous. If the Democ­rats cap­ture fifty seats, Vice Pres­i­dent Kamala Har­ris, as Pres­i­dent of the Sen­ate, can break ties, make Sen­a­tor Chuck Schumer the Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader, and take away Mitch McConnell’s abil­i­ty to block the agen­da and appoint­ments of Pres­i­dent Joe Biden.

But much is also at stake in this Washington.

Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell would like­ly become chair of the Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee. The conservationist/climate advo­cate would also be a high-rank­ing major­i­ty mem­ber of the Sen­ate Ener­gy and Nat­ur­al Resources Committee.

Sen­a­tor Pat­ty Mur­ray would like­ly chair the Sen­ate Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor and Pen­sions (HELP) Com­mit­tee, and be just behind Sen­a­tor Pat Leahy (D‑Vermont) on the Sen­ate Appro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee. Sure to resume would be jokes about Mur­ray wear­ing a red hat in the Senate’s “Col­lege of Car­di­nals,” a com­mon nick­name for sub­com­mit­tee chairs on Appropriations.

The expan­sion of Democ­rats’ pow­er would not stop there.

Sen­a­tor Ron Wyden, D‑Oregon, would like­ly chair the pow­er­ful Sen­ate Finance Com­mit­tee, on which Cantwell also serves. Sen­a­tor Jon Tester, D‑Montana, is in line to chair the Sen­ate Vet­er­ans Affairs Committee.

Pow­er is where pow­er goes, Lyn­don John­son used to say.

It has come the way of our region before.

Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­tor War­ren Mag­nu­son of Wash­ing­ton chaired Appro­pri­a­tions in the 1970s, with Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Mark Hat­field in the chair when Repub­li­cans took con­trol. Maggie’s lega­cy? The great third pow­er­house at Grand Coulee Dam. Think it a coin­ci­dence the Hat­field name adorns every­thing from the marine sci­ences cen­ter in New­port to the late­ly besieged fed­er­al build­ing in Portland?

Sen­a­tor Hen­ry Jack­son, D‑Washington, vast­ly expand­ed the nation­al parks sys­tem as chair of what was then the Sen­ate Inte­ri­or Com­mit­tee, includ­ing cre­ation of Washington’s North Cas­cades Nation­al Park. “Scoop” Jack­son was archi­tect of the Nation­al Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy Act, our nation’s sem­i­nal envi­ron­men­tal law.

Here’s at a look at the four poten­tial “Mis­ter Chair­man” and “Madame Chairs” from our Dou­glas fir adorned cor­ner of this big country.

Maria Cantwell

Maria Cantwell hosting a healthcare town hall
Maria Cantwell smiles as she lis­tens to a con­stituent ques­tion at a health­care town hall (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Cantwell has inher­it­ed the Jack­son man­tle, sit­ting on three “A” list com­mit­tees that make nation­al pol­i­cy. She moved to Com­merce in 2019 after serv­ing as rank­ing Demo­c­rat on Ener­gy and Nat­ur­al Resources.

On the lat­ter pan­el, she has crossed swords (Arc­tic Refuge) and coop­er­at­ed (Great Amer­i­can Out­doors Act) with Chair Lisa Murkows­ki, R‑Alaska.

Cantwell has shown remark­able effec­tive­ness dur­ing the Trump era.

She has embed­ded and per­ma­nent­ly fund­ed the Land and Water Con­ser­va­tion Fund, which uses fed­er­al off­shore oil rev­enues to pay for a pletho­ra of con­ser­va­tion and recre­ation projects.

She worked with Murkows­ki to autho­rize and begin con­struc­tion of a fleet of heavy-duty polar ice­break­ers. She used an ear­li­er out­doors bill to put 311,000 acres of Washington’s upper Methow Val­ley off-lim­its to min­ing exploration.

Cantwell is a pol­i­cy wonk. Any aide assigned a tech­ni­cal task (e.g. dis­man­tling of the Taco­ma Smelter) has found them­selves hav­ing to keep up with the boss’ knowl­edge. On Finance, Cantwell was a major archi­tect of the Dodd-Frank bill aimed at requir­ing more Wall Street account­abil­i­ty. Cantwell with­held her vote from the bill until she secured tougher provisions.

Patty Murray

President Obama applauds Senator Patty Murray
Pres­i­dent Oba­ma applauds Sen­a­tor Pat­ty Mur­ray at a ral­ly at Hec Edmund­son Pavil­ion in Octo­ber 2010 (Pho­to: Chelsea Nesvig, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Sen­a­tor Mur­ray is part of the Sen­ate Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship, con­signed of late to send­ing lengthy protest let­ters decry­ing Trump poli­cies to Trump cab­i­net sec­re­taries. They’ve rarely received an answer.

She was giv­en exact­ly five min­utes to ques­tion U.S. Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion-des­ig­nate Bet­sy DeVos at a HELP con­fir­ma­tion hearing.

Mur­ray mus­tered fifty “No” votes on the DeVos nom­i­na­tion, only to have Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence break the Sen­ate tie.

Mur­ray has been a tren­chant DeVos critic.

She was also one of the first to raise alarm of a poten­tial COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, since sev­en of the first ten deaths of the coro­n­avirus were in Washington.

If Democ­rats take Sen­ate con­trol, look for a revi­tal­ized Mur­ray. Of late, she has been less acces­si­ble to con­stituents and Pacif­ic North­west media, too heav­i­ly shield­ed by staff and bur­dened with a com­mu­ni­ca­tions staff that churns out boil­er­plate prose. Mur­ray has a knack for impasse break­ing. The tal­ent will be usable again if the mas­ter of impasse cre­ation, Mitch McConnell, is dethroned.

Jon Tester

Jon Tester at the Dr. Dava J. Newman Ceremonial Swearing-In
Sen­a­tor Jon Tester, D‑Montana, gives remarks at the cer­e­mo­ni­al swear­ing-in of Dr. Dava J. New­man as NASA Deputy Admin­is­tra­tor, Tues­day, July 14, 2015 at the Dirk­sen Sen­ate Office Build­ing in Wash­ing­ton. Pho­to: (Joel Kowsky/NASA)

Jon Tester raised the wrath of Don­ald Trump more than any oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tor up for reelec­tion in 2018. Tester did so by inves­ti­gat­ing and block­ing Trump’s nom­i­na­tion of Ron­ny Jack­son to head the U.S. Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Affairs. Trump made four trips to Mon­tana to cam­paign against Tester.

Pence was in the Big Sky State, along with Don­ald Trump, Jr.

A Billings, Mon­tana, high school senior, Tyler Lin­festy, stood behind Trump at a ral­ly. Amer­i­cans received, from the “plaid shirt guy”, a rare up-close reac­tion of a nor­mal Amer­i­can hear­ing Trump.

Lin­festy appeared to roll his eyes and chuck­le at lies told by the occu­pant of the Oval Office. He was ush­ered out of the Trump back­drop and briefly held.

Though oth­er red state Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tors (includ­ing Hei­di Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill) were boot­ed from office in the 2018 midterms, Tester sur­vived, and will be rep­re­sent­ing Mon­tana through at least the end of 2024.

Ron Wyden

Ron Wyden at a town hall in Milton-Freewater
Sen­a­tor Ron Wyden (D‑Oregon) lis­tens to con­stituent ask a ques­tion at a town hall in Mil­ton-Free­wa­ter in April of 2017 (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Ron Wyden began his career as an advo­cate for the elder­ly, found­ing the Ore­gon chap­ter of Gray Pan­thers and direct­ing the Ore­gon Legal Ser­vices Cen­ter for the Elder­ly. He once worked as a dri­ver for fiery Sen­a­tor Wayne Morse.

Wyden was elect­ed to Con­gress in 1980 as an insur­gent, defeat­ing con­ser­v­a­tive Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Bob Duncan.

He has been there ever since. Wyden made his name as an inves­ti­ga­tor on the House Ener­gy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, and in 1996 won the Sen­ate seat vacat­ed by a dis­graced Bob Pack­wood. Wyden has con­tin­ued his role as an inves­ti­ga­tor. He has opposed nom­i­nees of both Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dents. And he is one of Con­gress’ tech and cyber­se­cu­ri­ty experts.

Wyden has car­ried on an Ore­gon tra­di­tion of account­abil­i­ty and acces­si­bil­i­ty. He holds well attend­ed town hall meet­ings across the Beaver State, often in rur­al East­ern Ore­gon coun­ties that vote Republican.

In years past, chairs of the Sen­ate Finance Com­mit­tee – Lloyd Bentsen, D‑Texas, and Pack­wood – used their tax­ing pow­ers to estab­lish exclu­sive break­fast groups with lob­by­ists. The price of admis­sion, dona­tions of $5,000 or $10,000.

If Wyden becomes chair, vot­ers in Burns, Bak­er City, Bend and Mil­ton-Free­wa­ter will be able to per­son­al­ly inter­act with the Chair of the Sen­ate Finance Committee.

Sen­ate can­di­dates Warnock and Ossoff are under­dogs in Geor­gia, but 2.3 mil­lion votes have already been cast, a record for a Geor­gia runoff, and pub­lic opin­ion research sug­gests both races could be won by either par­ty’s ticket.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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