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Spin Control

Playing the lower expectations game

Democrats in the other Washington are already trying to lower expectations for the kind of votes  incumbent Sen. Patty Murray will pull down on Tuesday, and raise expectations for Republican Dino Rossi.

A press release from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are contending that Rossi should outpoll Murray in the primary, but not to worry, she'll win in November. Rossi got 46.35 percent of the primary vote in 2008 when he ran the second time for governor and "we expect him to earn at least that much in tomorrow's primary," the campaign committee's exec director JB Poersch said earlier today. That plus Murray only got 45.9 percent in the 1998 primary, but went on to win the general by 16 percentage points.

This is an interesting example of using selective data to bolster a really bad argument by people who clearly don't know very much about Washington primaries.

We explain, inside the blog...

First of all, the 1998 primary was the old Blanket primary in which voters could vote for any candidate in any race, so while Murray got "only" 45.9 percent of the votes, she got way more votes than any other candidate, about 479,000. There were 13 candidates on that ballot, but only two serious GOP candidates, then-Rep. Linda Smith and Chris Bayley. Smith blew Bayley out of the water and finished second, with 32.3 percent, or 337,400 votes.   Considering that the current Top Two primary is constructed to be as close to the Blanket primary as the U.S. Supreme Court will allow, by using 1998 statistics, if Murray doesn't lead the field, she's looking at a much tougher race than 1998, when she was just a freshman.

The 2008 gubernatorial primary was a Top Two primary with 10 candidates, but with only two serious contenders, Rossi and incumbent Chris Gregoire. And while Rossi did get 46.35 percent, Gregoire got 48.27 percent, or about 30,000 more votes. By that standard, again, if Murray gets fewer votes than Rossi, it would be safe to question whether she's got problems heading into the general election.

It's interesting to note one other primary that folks at the DSCC didn't bring up, the 2004 September primary. That was not a blanket primary, and required voters to pick a Republican, Democratic or Libertarian ballot.

Murray got about 709,500 votes; then-Rep. George Nethercutt, the leading Republican, got about 432,500. Part of the reason Murray got so many more: there were lots more Democratic ballots cast than Republican ballots, a sign that generally speaking there are a lot more Democrats than Republicans in Washington state.

The fact that there's an actual race on the GOP side -- Clint Didier and Paul Akers are not conceding the nomination to Rossi -- and no contest on the Democratic side may cause more independents to pick a Republican.

But the bottom line is that if Murray's vote totals are behind Rossi's, she's in trouble. It's not fatal, but it's not comparable to any of the years the DSCC is pointing to. But she could still have the most votes, and be in serious trouble.

There's really nothing in a contemporary statewide primary to use as a comparison. So here's a congressional race to consider: the 1994 5th District congressional campaign. That was a blanket primary with incumbent House Speaker Tom Foley, and strong Republican challengers George Nethercutt, Duane Alton, John Sonneland, plus unknown Republican Edward Larish.

Foley got 35 percent of the primary vote, and Nethercutt finished a close second with nearly 30 percent and all the  Republicans split nearly two-thirds of the total. Nethercutt went on to win the general in a barnburner of a campaign,  51 percent to 49 percent.

Using that yardstick, it's safe to say that the GOP contest keeps Murray much under 40 percent, she's got her work cut out for her.

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The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.