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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

On Washington’s Primary, Or, It Might Be Time For Republicans To Worry

I’m supposed to be finishing another story tonight, but I’ve just come from Darcy Burner’s primary night party…and I have in front of me the results of the important races tonight in Washington’s newfangled “top two” primary.

It is unfair to extrapolate the results of elections in the “People’s Republic of Washington” directly onto a national map, but as I look as these results it seems fair to say that if any Republican strategists aren’t sweating bullets this morning it’s because they’ll be hustling for votes in towns like Maggie Valley, North Carolina (don’t forget to stop by Saratoga’s for the Wednesday night jazz…)…or, perhaps, Bessemer Bend, Wyoming.

For the rest of the Republican community, tonight’s events are not good news.

We have a fair amount to cover, so let’s get to it.

First, a few words on the unusual new primary system. The “top two” primary was brought to law through the initiative process after the United States Supreme Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of the old system.

How does the new primary work? Simple. The two candidates with the most votes in any primary election move on to the general. (There is an exception: judges are elected in this State; and candidates with “50% + 1” votes in the primary automatically win the election. They do not appear on the general election ballot.)

Odd results could occur. For example, there can be occasions where two Democratic or two Republican candidates are the top two finishers in a primary (or two of another party, theoretically…), which could leave either no Democratic or no Republican candidate—or potentially no Democrat and no Republican--in the general as a candidate for that position.

This will in fact happen in Washington’s Legislative District 7, Position 1 race, as four Republicans square off against each other today, with the top two Republicans making it to the general election ballot.

There is also great controversy over who can be a Democrat or a Republican; the current law allows the candidate to self-identify party affiliation, much to the frustration of both the Democratic and Republican Party establishments, who see the potential for considerable mischief in the arrangement. They also cite First Amendment “free association” issues and “branding” concerns.

All that controversy notwithstanding, about 75 well-wishers have shown up on a rainy night to see Darcy Burner, who is running for the second time against former Sheriff Dave (“I investigated the Green River Killer”) Reichert; each hoping to serve as the Representative from Washington’s 8th Congressional District in the 111th Congress.

She lost by about 7,000 votes to Reichert two years ago (out of 250,000 cast), and this race has attracted national attention as Reichert, naturally, is perceived to be vulnerable…and she is no longer perceived as unknown.

And judging by the results as they came in, she was again close…but she could not crack the 3% difference that was keeping them apart (47%-44%). In the King County voting she was only 462 votes behind Reichert, and the remainder of the difference is Reichert’s 2,100 vote lead in Pierce County.

Here’s the bad news for Reichert:

He’s a two-term incumbent from a district that has sent Republicans to Congress the past 8 elections—and he’s only leading by just those 2,600 votes—with lots of media money yet to come to the fight on the Democratic side and a public apparently ready to vote for change.

For the rest of Republican America…well, have a look at the Governor’s race:

Chris Gregiore (recently shortened from Christine) has the distinction of winning the closest gubernatorial election in American history (her margin, after two recounts and a lawsuit: 133 votes out of 2.8 million votes cast). She faces Dino Rossi, her 2004 opponent, again in this election…and you might expect the race would be just as tough for her. Rossi, and many others, certainly felt that was the case on August 14th.

It wasn’t. At the moment, with more than 98% of the primary vote counted, she’s leading by a 49% to 45% margin…suggesting the Don’t Know Dino ads are hitting the mark…and that the “fact check” response from the Rossi campaign is not.

Rossi issued this statement:

“We had a strong showing in the primary tonight. Current returns show we have received over 45 percent of the vote. To put these results into perspective, during the 2004 campaign I received just 34 percent of the vote in the primary and the General Election turned out to be significantly closer.”

Rossi’s name recognition will not be growing in this campaign, as it did during the ’04 cycle, and as a result he may have trouble growing his vote. Let me tell you, if your friendly fake consultant was working for Rossi, there’s a good chance that Prilosec might become part of the daily armor.

This is not the worst news for Republican strategists.

The worst news is found in the statewide “State Executive” positions that are partisan elected offices. For example…

…consider the State Treasurer position. “Treasurer-For-Life” Mike Murphy is not running for re-election, pitting two “zero name recognition” candidates against each other…and right now the Democrat, Jim McIntire, is losing by 29,000 out of 772,000 votes (44% to 40%), with only 24% of the voters showing up.

To make things a bit worse, the State’s three largest counties, with nearly 50% of the electorate between them (and counties that are often fertile ground for Democrats) are voting at less than the statewide average, suggesting turnout in Democratic-trending counties will be higher in November than it was today…especially with Obama at the top of the ticket.

…more downticket trouble for the Rs can be found in the Commissioner of Public Lands election, where Peter Goldmark (who might have been director of the State’s Department of Agriculture but still has no Statewide name recognition…) is running pretty much neck-and-neck with longtime incumbent Doug Sutherland, 50% to 49%.

Just so you know, Eastern Washington is fire engine red, electorally…and Western Washington’s more rural counties often provide the swing vote…which makes Goldmark’s success more surprising, as he’s an Eastern Washington Democrat.

…Democrat Jason Osgood, who previously worked with Washington Citizens for Fair Elections, pulled 33% of the vote in a Secretary of State race against the Republican incumbent Sam Reed, despite having no Statewide presence of any kind…or any name recognition, for that matter.

Of the nine Congressional Districts, the primary results suggest two safe Republican seats (WA-04 and WA-05), one uncertain race (the aforementioned WA-08), and at least six Democrats (WA-All The Others).

If Obama can raise turnout by an extra 3,000 new voters in WA-08, the resulting Delegation would be 7-2 Democratic…which would represent raising turnout by only 1% of the currently registered voters in that District.

…Spokane has two zero name recognition State Legislative candidates running for an empty seat, and the Democrat and Republican are running nearly even in a part of the State that should offer natural advantages to the Republican.

John Ahern, a 4-term Republican State Representative, also from Spokane, is also running in a near dead heat (50%-49%) against John Driscoll, who would be the first Democrat elected to this position since 1938.

In a Benton County race with no incumbent running (Conan O’Brien in the sun red, demographically), Carol Moser is stomping the Republican 40% to 18% in her Legislative race.

Incumbent Republican Jim Dunn is losing badly to Democrat Tim Probst (49% to 18%) in a Vancouver Legislative race that also would seem to favor Republicans.

I could go on and on, but this gives us a few general trends to examine:

Without Obama at the top of the ticket, Democrats are either staying close in Statewide elections—with no “name recognition” candidates—or grabbing the apparent lead in previously reliable Republican Legislative strongholds. In my quick search of the State Legislative results I could not find an incumbent Democrat who has fewer votes than a Republican challenger.

If Obama can bring enough new voters to the polls to raise turnout 1% WA-08 likely goes to Darcy Burner.

And finally, a Governor’s race that should have been much closer…ain’t.

There are several states (North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado…maybe even Indiana) where this trend could be a harbinger of very good things to come--and as I said at the top, outside of Maggie Valley and Bessemer Bend, the Republicans—especially downticket Republicans--might just be in a lot more trouble than they ever imagined.

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