September 16, 2004 in City

Primary results prove puzzling

By The Spokesman-Review
 

INSIDE

Anyone who claims to know exactly what Tuesday’s primary means for the general election is either a genius or a liar.

With voters restricted to a single party’s candidates for the first time in nearly 70 years, there are no bench marks, no previous elections for persons with long memories to point to and say “It happened then, so it will probably happen again this year.”

Even before the ballots were counted, Republicans were arguing that vote totals for their winners shouldn’t be compared to vote totals for winning Democrats.

The race between Attorney General Christine Gregoire and King County Executive Ron Sims was the big draw statewide, argued state GOP Chairman Chris Vance. More voters would want to cast Democratic ballots. George Nethercutt’s Senate campaign picked up the theme and sent out an election night memo saying that the Democrats had several competitive statewide races, compared to none for the Republicans.

While it’s true that about 50 percent more Democratic ballots were cast statewide than Republican ballots, the reasons aren’t clear, said Lance LeLoup, a political science professor at Washington State University.

The draw of a big gubernatorial race may be an obvious explanation, but not necessarily the correct one, LeLoup said.

“It could be that Republicans were more ticked off about the new primary,” he said. “Or that Democrats did a better job of getting out their base support.”

That last explanation was the one Democrats were giving Wednesday morning, adding that they were just tuning up their get-out-the-vote strategies for the Nov. 2 general election.

“We’ve been saying for a year that there’s tremendous excitement and energy on the Democratic side, which is why we had so many people turn out for our caucuses,” said Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for that party’s statewide coordinated campaign.

Brett Bader, a campaign consultant who regularly works on Republican efforts, conceded that Democrats were “much better about voting” Tuesday.

“But the general election is a presidential election, and everyone is going to be voting,” Bader said. “Republicans are saving their turnout game for the general.”

Among those voting in November will be people who refuse to vote in the primary, either because they don’t like the new system or don’t identify with any party enough to get involved in nominating candidates. Those independent voters are going to be the target of every major campaign, from the statewide races for Senate and governor down to the local fights for legislative and county commissioner seats.

“That’s the group that’s up for grabs,” Bader said.

The day after any election, political experts are awash in numbers. Although no one is certain what the primary numbers mean, here are some of the figures they are talking about:

• Cathy McMorris’ 49 percent showing in the 5th Congressional District Republican primary. Some people expected a close three-way race, but the Colville state representative ran away with it. She won in eight of 11 counties, and in four of them polled more than her Republican challengers Larry Sheahan and Shaun Cross, plus Democrat Don Barbieri.

“McMorris comes out with a bounce because she won so convincingly,” suggested Bader.

On Tuesday morning, Cross and Sheahan closed ranks around McMorris and promised to support her. “It’s absolutely imperative that we have a Republican in this seat,” Sheahan said.

Vance, the state GOP chairman, promised financial aid from state and national party coffers. “Money will not be an issue,” he said.

But Barbieri’s numbers in Spokane County, which is the most populous in the district, were also strong. He polled 14,000 more than McMorris. That he collected more votes than the Republicans combined in central Spokane, which is a Democratic stronghold, was no more surprising than that their totals swamped his in the Spokane Valley. But Barbieri also pulled more votes than any of the other three on parts of the South Hill that are traditionally Republican strongholds with heavy voter turnout.

“I tell you, McMorris is toast,” contended Cathy Allen of Seattle-based Campaign Connections, which traditionally works for Democratic candidates and causes.

• Murray’s totals, which Wednesday afternoon stood at nearly 442,000, compared to Nethercutt’s totals, which were about 260,000. Nethercutt repeated his call for more debates, scaling back from 39, or one for each of Washington’s counties, to nine, as in one for each congressional district. Murray has so far agreed to two: one in Spokane and one in Seattle.

Nethercutt also announced he would make campaign stops in eight central Washington communities today. Murray made a point of staying in Washington to vote on bills that are working their way through Congress before it adjourns sometime next month.

“Nethercutt should be worried because he’s from the east side of the state. History is not on George Nethercutt’s side,” said Edward Weber, director of WSU’s Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service. “However, Patty Murray is having trouble getting her positives up. That usually means that an incumbent is vulnerable, and Nethercutt knows that.”

“She came in exactly where we thought: healthy,” contended Allen. “How anyone can look at her numbers and think she’s in trouble, I don’t know.”

• Spokane County numbers also suggested a flaw in the Republicans’ argument that Murray would outpoll Nethercutt in the primary because the gubernatorial race convinced more people to take Democratic ballots.

By Wednesday afternoon, Spokane had counted about 81,500 ballots – about 2,000 more Republican than Democrat. But even though there were more Republican ballots, Murray and Gregoire pulled in more total votes than Nethercutt and GOP gubernatorial nominee Dino Rossi.

“Folks weren’t satisfied with anointed candidates,” said Brost, a reference to GOP state chairman Vance securing party support for Rossi and Nethercutt before the primary, even though they had party opponents.

Bader argued it was merely an “undervote” that reflected the fact that Republicans expected Nethercutt and Rossi to win and so didn’t worry about supporting them in the primary.

• Turnout stood at about 893,000 statewide on Wednesday afternoon, or some 27 percent of the state’s registered voters, with an estimated 467,000 absentees still to count. In Spokane County, it was about 34.5 percent, with absentee ballots still pouring in, and counts scheduled for this afternoon, and several days next week.

“I am pleased overall with the turnout,” Secretary of State Sam Reed said in an interview Wednesday. “When you consider what the voters of the state are going through and how upset they’ve been with us, I think it really says a lot about them.”

His office surveyed voters Tuesday, and 79 percent said they didn’t like the primary. He complimented them for casting ballots anyway.

On Wednesday, however, his re-election campaign began airing radio commercials that said he opposes the “pick a party” primary and supports an alternative on the Nov. 2 ballot, while Democratic challenger Laura Ruderman supports the current system.

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