Dino Rossi cuts a unique profile in Washington politics.
He’s among the state’s best-known Republican politicians, yet it’s been 18 years since he won election to office.
Since then, the former state senator and real-estate investor has lost three hard-fought statewide races: for governor in 2004 and 2008, and U.S. Senate in 2010.
This is the last in a series of stories about the leading candidates for Congress in the 8th District.
But ahead of the 2018 midterms, Rossi has been promoted as a top recruit by national Republicans as they seek to retain the 8th Congressional District seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn. The race is viewed as one of a couple dozen that will decide control of the House.
Rossi’s path through the Aug. 7 primary seems clear. He has raised $3 million, faces no serious GOP rivals and is favored to advance to the November election to match up against one of three rookie Democratic candidates: pediatrician Kim Schrier, attorney Jason Rittereiser or former federal public-health official Shannon Hader.
In a year dominated by tweets and controversies emanating from the Trump White House, Rossi prefers to steer the conversation to other subjects, like taxes and federal spending.
“I will speak out when I see things that are off, but if you want somebody to go to D.C. to just yell at the president, I’m not your guy. You’ve got plenty of people to choose from,” Rossi said in an interview with The Seattle Times editorial board. “I think we have way too many people yelling at each other in politics right now.”
Like he has before, Rossi, is campaigning as a political moderate with a record of reaching across the aisle to solve problems.
Democrats sharply dispute that, saying Rossi is a partisan and a conservative, pointing, for example, to his consistent opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
A longtime Sammamish resident, Rossi, 58, was first elected to the state Legislature in 1996. Within six years he’d risen to become chief budget writer for state Senate Republicans, chairing the powerful Ways and Means Committee and working with Democrats to close a $2.3 billion budget shortfall in 2003.
He rose to statewide prominence in 2004 as the GOP candidate for governor, nearly pulling off an upset win over then-Attorney General Christine Gregoire.
In that controversial election, Rossi was twice declared the winner — and even set up a transition office — before the outcome was reversed on a third vote count.
A Republican lawsuit seeking to void the results was rejected by a judge, who ruled that despite irregularities there was no evidence that fraud or intentional misconduct swayed the election.
Gregoire easily defeated Rossi in a 2008 rematch. In 2010, Rossi unsuccessfully challenged Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s bid for a fourth term. Since then he has twice been appointed to the Legislature to fill temporary vacancies.
In 2018, Republican confidence in Rossi is bolstered by his history — even in those statewide losses — of winning a majority of support in the Cascade Mountains spanning the 8th District.
“His brand of politics, of being fiscally conservative with a social conscience, and a bipartisan problem-solver, is exactly what the people of the 8th are looking for,” said Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the state Republican Party.
State Democratic chair Tina Podlodowski counters she’s confident any of the top Democratic candidates can win.
“I don’t think that Dino Rossi is as tough as folks make him out to be,” she said, arguing that Rossi’s views on abortion and LGBTQ rights make him a more conservative candidate than Reichert.
“Reichert was rightly probably called more of a centrist,” Podlodowski said. “Dino is no Dave Reichert in that way.”
Rossi, whom Reichert has endorsed, said he’s not focused on divisive social issues. “It’s not why I run for office,” he said.
If bills come up in the House, Rossi said he’d vote his conscience as a faithful Catholic, opposing taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood, for example.
“If it comes before me I will vote for life for sure … I always have,” he said, saying money should be shifted to organizations that do not provide abortions.
Rossi supports exceptions to abortion restrictions in cases of incest and rape, or where the life of the mother is at stake. But asked about a bill passed by the Republican-led House banning abortions after 20 weeks, Rossi said he opposed an exception sought by Democrats for pregnancies that threaten a woman’s health.
“Health is anything you want it to be,” he said. “Life of the mother is pretty clear.”
Rossi supported the GOP tax-cut law signed in December, pointing to bonuses and pay raises handed down to workers since then by local businesses including Boeing and PACCAR.
“This is real and tangible,” he said. “My opponents, including Nancy Pelosi, call it crumbs.”
Asked about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election meddling, Rossi said he believes it should be allowed to continue but did not back legislation to shield Mueller should Trump try to shut down the probe.
“I don’t think it needs to be protected. I think you just let it play out. I don’t think it is going to get stopped,” he said, adding he hopes the investigation will wrap up before the end of the year.
The youngest of seven children, Rossi grew up in Mountlake Terrace and graduated from Seattle University with a business degree, paying his way through school with construction and janitorial jobs. He worked as a commercial real-estate agent and purchased his first apartment building when he was 25.
He built a lucrative career, sometimes mingling his political and business worlds. Democrats have hammered him in past elections for buying a building with a pair of lobbyists when he was a state senator.
Rossi points to his business deal-making background as a strong suit, badly needed in Washington, D.C. He got his start working out multimillion-dollar real-estate transactions with lawyers and self-made millionaires.
He said that experience gives him some insight into Trump.
“I have dealt with some pretty tough developers in this town over the years. And he is like the toughest one on steroids. He is in-your-face New York, which doesn’t sit well with my style or Northwest style,” Rossi said. “He’ll never win Washington state ever, and I don’t think he really cares.”
Rossi said he started out supporting other Republican presidential candidates in 2016, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. But he voted to confirm Trump as the GOP nominee as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
While Democrats this year are fixated on an anti-Trump “blue wave” sweeping the GOP out of power, Rossi said he’s not seeing evidence of that when talking with voters.
“People are more concerned about taxes … happy they’re employed. They’re just living their lives,” he said. “That anger is really not something I am feeling out there.”