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Gregoire tops Rossi for second time

McMorris Rodgers cruises to victory; Idaho’s Sali-Minnick contest too close to call

The Democratic tide that swept Barack Obama into the White House left some Republicans standing as it washed over Washington and Idaho. But it may have helped keep Chris Gregoire in Washington’s governor’s mansion.

Four years after winning a razor’s-edge election, Gregoire on Tuesday claimed an easier victory over two-time Republican challenger Dino Rossi – although he refused to concede as ballot counting continued into this morning.

Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers easily was re-elected in Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District, while across the border in Idaho, incumbent Republican Bill Sali was in a see-saw battle with Democratic challenger Walt Minnick.

But in Idaho’s Senate race, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch paralleled John McCain’s in-state vote totals and easily topped Democrat Larry LaRocco.

In Spokane County, most incumbents, regardless of party, had easy nights in legislative and county commissioner contests. The exception was Spokane’s 6th Legislative District, where both state House incumbents, Democrat Don Barlow and Republican John Ahern, trailed challengers.

The moods were very different as Spokane Republicans and Democrats gathered to watch returns at election night parties.

Obama was declared the victor in the presidential race just a minute after polls closed in Washington and Idaho. As expected, he easily won Washington and John McCain easily took Idaho.

But at the Davenport Hotel, where television monitors were tuned to the Fox News channel, Republicans hardly noticed the announcement signaling the end of 20 months of campaigning. When McCain began his concession speech about a half hour later, the crowd fell silent, but before he finished the crowd was looking hopefully for better news from local races.

At the Red Lion Hotel at the Park, an extra room was opened to accommodate a standing-room only crowd of more than 1,000 Democrats who cheered Obama’s win. As his victory speech blared through the hall, Spokane County Democratic Party Chairwoman Kristine Reeves wiped tears from her face.

“For the first time in America, equality is not just a catch phrase,” she said.

Washington governor

Standing before cheering supporters in Seattle, Gregoire pledged to work closely with President-elect Barack Obama on education, clean energy and other initiatives.

“We are going to make the dreams of every one of our children come true in the great state of Washington,” said an exuberant Gregoire. Unlike in 2004, early returns showed her winning in Spokane County.

Election officials and media had been prepared for another contest that would remain undecided for a week or more. By late Tuesday, Gregoire was leading Rossi 52 percent to 48 percent. And hundreds of thousands of ballots remain to be counted in the Democratic bastion of King County, where early counts went overwhelmingly for Gregoire, 69 percent to 31 percent.

Rossi’s spokeswoman said he wasn’t conceding the race.

“At this hour, fewer than 50 percent of ballots have been counted statewide,” said Jill Strait. In 2004 and the August primary, she noted, later ballots trended toward Rossi. So the campaign, she said, doesn’t yet “feel that we are in a position to know who will win.”

Earlier in the evening, Rossi told cheering supporters that the state needs change “and I intend to lead that change.”

Washington’s 5th Congressional District

Although Washington state voted Democratic in the presidential race for the sixth straight election, Barack Obama’s coattails did not reach down to the race for Eastern Washington’s Congressional District.

Republican incumbent Cathy McMorris Rodgers coasted to a victory over Democratic challenger Mark Mays, a Spokane psychologist and lawyer.

McMorris Rodgers, 39, had the name recognition that comes with incumbency, and by mid-October she’d raised 16 times more money than her challenger. Mays, 60, had the disadvantage of entering the race late and tried to maintain his practice on a part-time basis for much of the campaign.

Soon after numbers were released in Spokane County, Mays said a victory was unlikely, though he would wait to concede until seeing results from other counties.

“It’s basically to the point of no money, no message,” Mays said. “If you can’t advertise to get your message out, then you’re very, very challenged.”

On most issues, McMorris Rodgers has been a predictable vote for House Republican leadership and the White House during her four years in Congress, supporting Bush economic policies and the surge in Iraq. But she broke with both in opposing the $700 billion financial institution bailout. She served her first term in the majority and her second in the minority. On Tuesday night, she appeared heading back to a House with even fewer Republicans. That means it will be important to build on relationships with members of both parties, she said at a gathering of local Republicans at the Davenport Hotel.

“It’s time that Republicans and Democrats work together,” she said.

Idaho Senate

Idahoans picked Risch to replace Larry Craig on Tuesday out of a five-person field that included former Democratic congressman Larry LaRocco.

“My fellow Idahoans, you’ve hired me to do this job and I commit to you that I will work as hard at this job as I did when I was your governor,” Risch told supporters in Boise. “We have a tremendous number of challenges facing us. … We’re Americans. We can do this. All we need to do is roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Risch drew applause and a few cheers from Republicans assembled at a downtown Boise hotel when he thanked Craig and his wife, “for your service to the great state of Idaho.”

LaRocco conceded “a great race.”

“Four years ago, the Democrats had nobody running for the Senate against Mike Crapo,” he said.

Idaho’s 1st Congressional District

Freshman Sali narrowly won election two years ago and had a tough challenge this year from Democratic businessman Minnick. The race was too close to call Tuesday night.

Sali, 54, remained in a Boise hotel room upstairs from the GOP celebration, and his campaign spokesman said he wasn’t ready to say anything. He appeared briefly and simply told supporters the race was too close to call.

“He’s watching the election results. He’s very enthusiastic,” spokesman Wayne Hoffman said. “He likes the way the numbers are coming in so far and we’re very optimistic.”

Minnick, 65, appeared energized as he mixed with Democratic supporters at another hotel a few miles away, and he also paid a visit to a separate Obama party downtown. He said the campaign was hard-hitting but issue-focused.

“My attempt has been to draw a distinction on issues between Bill Sali’s voting record and any positions where they differ, and I think we have been largely successful in doing that. I will be content tomorrow regardless of the outcome tonight.”

Staff writers Betsy Z. Russell, Richard Roesler and Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.