Updated: May 31
Opinion: Patty Murray has a Republican challenger. She shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss her.
That “mom” is Tiffany Smiley. Smiley, who announced her candidacy on Thursday, is a 38-year-old mother of three. Her story is compelling: Sixteen years ago, she received a life-changing phone call. Her husband, Scotty, a U.S. Military Academy at West Point graduate serving in Iraq, had been permanently blinded and might not survive. Smiley immediately quit her job as a triage nurse and flew to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to be by his side. There, she says, she found a bureaucratic and incompetent system that was trying to roust her husband out of the military and couldn’t or wouldn’t provide him the care he needed to fully recover.
Smiley took on the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs — and won. Her husband got the care he needed and became the first blind active-duty officer in the Army. She went on to help other women take on their challenges as an author, speaker and consultant. Now, she says she’s running to fight for Washington state’s forgotten families.
It would be normal to dismiss her chances. She has never run for office before, and first-time candidates rarely defeat powerful incumbents. But that’s what insiders thought about Murray when she started out as an activist working for education reform. Murray beat the expectations, becoming a Washington state senator and then prevailing in a multicandidate race to go to D.C. So, it’s a good idea to look under the hood and see what unique attributes Smiley brings to the race to properly assess her chances.
Smiley starts with strong media and speaking experience. She’s been a frequent guest on television, including Fox News, and is no stranger to the spotlight. She will make a strong impression on television whether in her own ads or interviews on local news programs.
She also has heavy Republican hitters behind her. Her pollster is Ed Goaes of the Tarrance Group, one of the GOP’s leading pollsters, and the renowned consultant firm of BrabenderCox is running her campaign. That type of talent does not sign on to fly-by-night wannabes who aren’t in it to win it.
Smiley is also different from many recent Republican first-time candidates in that she’s not running as a MAGA-maniac Trump clone. Her campaign website doesn’t highlight her party, ideology or Trump. Using soothing blue and green colors rather than the MAGA-red Trump acolytes typically adopt, she presents herself as a neighbor, not a politician, who is interested in finding solutions to challenges such as jobs and education. It’s also notable that her issues section stresses the need for fair trade policies such as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the trade deal Trump negotiated to replace NAFTA, and worker training rather than the supply-side boilerplate that Republican outsiders usually espouse. That’s the sort of approach needed to win a blue state such as Washington.
The candidate herself has a good sense of how she can meet the challenge ahead. In an interview on Thursday, Smiley told me that she’s running because “we need a trusted fighter to stand up for our future.” She highlights her biography and life experience when explaining how she can connect with voters: “I’m a mom, a wife and a nurse.” When asked about how she would respond to questions about abortion, she emphasized her experience as an ob-gyn triage nurse dealing with scared, pregnant women, saying “keeping your child shouldn’t be a ticket to poverty or not getting an education.” She repeatedly mentioned the need to come together in search of “common-sense solutions,” something she believes will resonate with “traditional GOP voters” and moms who may not have liked Trump.
Smiley is going to need a lot of those voters, because Washington is not friendly turf for Republicans. No Republican has won a U.S. Senate race in the state since 1994. Murray herself turned back a serious challenger in the Republican tsunami year of 2010. Republican presidential candidates haven’t won the state since as far back as 1984; Republican gubernatorial candidates since 1980. A Smiley victory would be buck recent national trends, too. No Senate Republican represents a state as Democratic as Washington. And Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) are the only Democrats to represent states that backed Trump by about as much or more than Washington backed Joe Biden.
This won’t deter Smiley. She knows that Murray is no longer the plucky mom taking on the establishment; Murray is the establishment. And as Murray herself knows, it’s never a good idea to dismiss a strong woman with a great story.
This article was originally published on April 16, 2021 in The Washington Post.