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Democrats seize day

Maria Cantwell cheers her supporters at a Seattle party celebrating her re-election win.
 (Dean Rutz Seattle Times / The Spokesman-Review)
Maria Cantwell cheers her supporters at a Seattle party celebrating her re-election win. (Dean Rutz Seattle Times / The Spokesman-Review)

The 2006 election may go down as a tough night for most Republicans and a bright spot for many Democrats.

From Washington’s U.S. Senate race to the Spokane County courthouse, Democrats turned some races that were thought to be close into cakewalks and shocked some Republicans who were thought to be holding safe seats.

Freshman Democrat Maria Cantwell had a surprisingly easy victory over Republican Mike McGavick, a huge turnaround from the squeaker she won six years ago.

Spokane businessman Chris Marr appeared to have ousted veteran legislator Brad Benson in Spokane’s 6th Legislative District, which hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since before World War II. Another Democrat, Spokane School Board member Don Barlow, had a slimmer lead over freshman Rep. John Serben for one of the district’s two House seats.

One bright spot in the night for Republicans was the re-election of freshman U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris, who survived a strong challenge from relative novice Peter Goldmark, an Okanogan rancher and former Washington State University regent.

The trend extended to a nonpartisan race with partisan overtones. Supreme Court Justice Susan Owens won a landslide victory that stunned challenger Stephen Johnson, a Republican state senator from Kent.

“I quit counting after a while,” said Johnson, suggesting his campaign fell underneath a “tidal wave” of anti-Republican sentiment. He lost even across wide swaths of Eastern Washington – counties where he’d polled strongly in the primary election just three months ago.

“I came in on a wave in 1994 and it looks like I’ll be going out on one in 2006,” Johnson said. “When you get one of these tsunamis, it’s the end of the story.”

Both were heavily backed by groups that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent ads. Builders supported Johnson; unions and some Indian tribes supported Owens.

In the Spokane Valley, a $75.7 million school construction bond issue for the Central Valley School District went down to defeat. Voters throughout the county rejected two advisory proposals on a light rail system for the Spokane Transit Authority. But Spokane city voters overwhelmingly approved a City Charter amendment that will make it easier to recall elected officials.

Surprise and shock

Democrats who packed into the China Best restaurant on in downtown Spokane were a jubilant bunch as election results reversed years of losses to Republicans.

“I think there’s a Democratic tide,” said an ecstatic Barlow, who attributed the results to voters’ concerns about the economy and the war in Iraq.

“It’s a tough night for Republicans,” Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said a few blocks away at the Davenport Hotel, as results scrolled across the big-screen televisions during the GOP election night party.

Mielke, too, thought voters were uneasy about the war and the economy, as well as ambivalent over federal spending. They complain about “pork” in federal budgets, but they want projects funded at home, he said.

But he and other Republicans held out hope that a strong push by Republicans in recent days to energize their voters could lead to some reversals of fortune when ballots that were mailed in the last few days are counted later in the week.

In the U.S. Senate race, however, the contest is clearly over.

Cantwell swamped McGavick, pulling down nearly 56 percent of the vote and being declared the victor just minutes after the polls closed. McGavick had hoped for an Eastern Washington surge, but Cantwell led in Spokane County, the most populous east of the Cascades, with 53 percent of the vote.

“I’ve been waiting six years for a real election night party,” she told revelers in an Associated Press report. “It doesn’t get any better than this! I like being called at 8:01!”

McGavick was upbeat, leading his supporters in a cheer for Cantwell and thanking them for helping him run a clean and civil campaign.

Iraq at issue

Cantwell is a former state legislator who served a single term in the U.S. House before being washed out in the Republican tide of 1994. She went on to make a fortune as an executive for RealNetworks, then beat three-term Sen. Slade Gorton in 2000. McGavick – once Gorton’s chief of staff and the engineer of one of his earlier election comebacks – was the chief executive officer for Safeco until late last year when he quit that job to run against Cantwell.

Early in the year Cantwell faced criticism from anti-war factions within the state Democratic Party, but Republicans may have overplayed the depth of that rift. She sidestepped the criticism by calling for U.S. troops to start leaving the country by the end of the year and demanding the Bush administration put more emphasis on diplomacy.

McGavick said the troops should only come home in victory, but in recent weeks criticized the Bush administration for “not understanding our frustrations,” called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign and said Iraq should be split into three separate entities if that’s what it took to achieve peace.

But it was a domestic issue that seemed to turn the tide in the race. In July, congressional Republicans tried to squeeze Cantwell and Patty Murray, the state’s senior Democratic senator, into voting for a package of tax breaks and an increase in the federal minimum wage. The tax breaks included several the two supported, including an extension of the deduction for the state sales tax. But they held firm with other Democrats, citing a possible problem with the way the minimum wage provisions were worded that could cut pay to workers who get part of their pay from tips.

The GOP’s effort to use that against Cantwell in August fell flat, and she never struggled after the Sept. 19 primary.

Back to D.C.

McMorris, a former state legislator who won the U.S. House seat in 2004, handily topped Goldmark, an Okanogan rancher with a doctorate in molecular biology who is a former Washington State University regent. She returns to Washington, D.C., as a member of the minority in the House, but said she hopes the relationships she’s built with Democrats in the state’s delegation will allow them to continue to work together.

McMorris and Goldmark found themselves in an increasingly contentious battle after uncontested primaries in September. She labeled him “the tax man,” even though he’s never held an office which controlled taxes, and accused him of “blaming America” for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 because he criticized the Bush administration’s mishandling of CIA information on terrorism.

He suggested that McMorris was tied to corruption in the Republican-dominated House, citing previous campaign contributions from disgraced representatives which she later donated to charity, and had turned her back on veterans because of recent and projected cutbacks in Veterans Affairs services in Spokane and Walla Walla.

In an election night interview, McMorris said she never expected an opponent to question her commitment to veterans or the military. Throughout the campaign she countered that spending on veterans has increased to record levels and on Tuesday night pledged to continue to work for veterans, military personnel and a stronger economy.

Goldmark refused to concede Tuesday night, saying he was waiting for more returns before issuing a formal statement. “The vote tally is still very close, and we’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.

Goldmark said that “a lot of people in Spokane County are voting for Democrats,” but establishing name familiarity in Spokane was a challenge. “By the time the campaign was over, people knew who I was.”

“The message from voters was how Congress was behaving and the Iraq war,” he said.

Riding the tide

Riding the Democratic tide was Marr, who finished the night with a lead of about 4,000 votes over Benson.

Marr, who was gathered with supporters at the Steam Plant Grill, said the election was a referendum on moderate politics and developing a “civic and political agenda for the region that works for everybody.” He credited a “textbook campaign” for his success.

“At the end of the day, I think it was the outreach to the voters,” he said.

He said the 6th District is changing with more social moderates and fiscal conservatives and working families.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, from Spokane’s 3rd District, said the Democratic majority in the Senate is likely to increase from 26 seats to 29 or 30 seats, including the Marr victory.

While Benson wasn’t ready to concede, he said the difference in vote totals was “a lot to overcome.”

He said the race was targeted by outside groups and their negative ads, but he was proud that his campaign never went negative. Independent groups came in for a last-minute attack on Marr but, he said, “it wasn’t very good, it was actually kind of stupid.”

Marr’s lead over Benson is about twice that of Barlow’s lead over Serben.

Serben said he still held out hope that a late surge in Republican votes will turn the results around, as it did two years ago when he trailed after early absentee ballots but won in votes cast at polls or close to Election Day.

If not, Barlow would become the second Native American lawmaker in the state Legislature, after Rep. John McCoy, R-Marysville. Barlow, a 68-year-old retired counselor and community college instructor, is an enrolled member of Oklahoma’s Ottawa tribe.

“I was a candidate for all people and all families,” he said. “And I plan to be a lawmaker for everyone.”

Rep. John Ahern, who finished the night about 4,000 votes ahead of Democrat Barbara Lampert for an easy re-election, said he was puzzled by the results that seemed to have ousted his GOP seatmates.

“We’re all on the same page when it comes to issues,” Ahern said. “We’re all in sync.”


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