Washington’s new primary system provided few surprises Tuesday, serving as a warm-up for a gubernatorial rematch between Chris Gregoire and Dino Rossi and some other expected matchups in the general election.
Gregoire, the incumbent Democrat, took an early lead over Rossi as counties around the state reported their ballot counts. But she was polling just under 50 percent, and Rossi was trailing her by 3 percent or less throughout the night, as eight other would-be governors battled for electoral scraps.
Regardless of the final tally, Rossi and Gregoire will get a do-over of 2004’s election, a race so close it went through two recounts and a court fight.
Other races yielded similarly unsurprising results. Many incumbents coasted to wins with healthy margins, and while the ballot listed many minor party candidates, the state’s top partisan races will pit a candidate who claims a party preference of Democrat against a candidate who claims a preference of Republican – or possibly GOP, the acronym for Grand Old Party that Republicans sometimes use.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson, who occupies the state’s only nonpartisan executive office, will face Randy Dorn in November.
The state’s top-two primary doesn’t serve as a nominating process for the parties. Rather, it’s a chance for voters to whittle the field. Candidates aren’t endorsed by parties and can claim a “preference” for any party.
In Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District, incumbent Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers easily topped a six-person field that included three candidates trying to outflank her on the right. She was pulling in more than half of all votes counted Tuesday night, and she will face Democrat Mark Mays, a psychologist and lawyer, in the general election.
“We’re doing better than I expected,” McMorris Rodgers said Tuesday night.
“I was hoping to be at 50 percent when you added it all up.”
Mays said he was happy with his showing of about 20 percent, after splitting the votes with four other challengers, including another Democrat, Barbara Lampert, who collected about 12 percent.
“For starting late, with very little name recognition, I’m very pleased,” Mays said. “Having spent over $789,000, you’d expect her to do better.”
Spokane County’s two commissioner races were shaping up to be tough fights, with a pair of Republican incumbents, Todd Mielke and Mark Richard, leading Democratic challengers Kim Thorburn and Brian Sayrs by just a few hundred votes.
Commissioners run in their districts in the primary but will run countywide in the general election.
In the governor’s race, both sides had tried hard to lower expectations for the primary, even while spending heavily in an 11th-hour push.
“They’re trying to pretend like they’re not really campaigning, but they’re busting their butts to try to put the knockout punch here in the primary,” said Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University. A strong showing by Rossi would likely help draw out-of-state GOP cash, he said, “but I don’t know how strong is ‘strong.’ ”
With Rossi for months calling the race a statistical dead heat, anything less than a tie would mean “a severe, if not fatal, blow to his prospects in November,” state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said in a recent memo to reporters.
Gregoire, who carried Spokane County with 48 percent to Rossi’s 45 percent, said she feels the voting statewide suggests her message of positive results for all Washington residents is resonating.
“We’re feeling good. We take nothing for granted,” the governor said in a phone interview from a campaign party in Seattle. “We’ve got momentum.”
Asked if she’s disappointed to be polling below 50 percent, she said no, and she noted there were nine other candidates for governor in Tuesday’s primary. Also, she said, vote counting will continue for days.
“It’s not over yet,” she said.
In Pullman, Washington State University professor David Nice cautioned against reading too much into the numbers.
“I don’t think it will matter if he’s ahead or behind, as long as it’s close,” he said.
In a memo of its own, Rossi’s campaign recently pointed out that no Republican gubernatorial candidate in Washington has led in a primary since 1972 – even though two Republicans were ultimately elected governor.
Four years ago, Rossi got only 34 percent of the vote in the primary but came very close to beating Gregoire in the general election.
“She’s the incumbent,” Rossi campaign Chairman Afton Swift said Tuesday. “She’s the one who has to show strength in this race.”
It’s also tough to compare 2004 to now, Donovan said, because that primary featured a heavyweight gubernatorial battle between two popular Democrats: King County Executive Ron Sims and then-Attorney General Gregoire.
The resulting flurry of Democratic votes made candidates like Rossi and Secretary of State Sam Reed look weaker than they really were, said Donovan.
Most voters aren’t closely watching races lower on the ballot, like the one for state schools chief, he said.
“It’s hard to think if you’re outside the education loop that you’d even know what’s going on there,” Donovan said.
Even heated races like the one for lands commissioner are likely “fairly invisible” to most voters, he said.
Most simply use party labels as a shortcut to pick their choices, he believes.
This election also marks the state’s first foray into a top-two primary.
Under the new system, the top two vote-getters will advance to the November ballot, regardless of party.
In northeastern Washington’s rural 7th Legislative District, that means that the November ballot will offer voters a choice between two Republicans, Sue Lani Madsen and Shelly Short.