Washington Republicans were lifted by a national tide in Tuesday’s elections, one that cost Democrats at least one of the state’s congressional seats and left a key U.S. Senate seat in doubt.
Early returns indicate the tide will carry more Republicans into the still solidly Democratic-controlled Legislature in Olympia, and to the already Republican-dominated courthouse in Spokane. Because Washington votes will continue to arrive in the mail for more than a week, close races might not be decided until right before Thanksgiving.
Three-term incumbent Patty Murray held a slim lead over Republican challenger Dino Rossi in a Senate race that split the state geographically. Murray won many of the counties that surround Puget Sound, including King County where about one in three of the state’s voters reside. Rossi rolled up big margins in most of Eastern Washington.
But at night’s end, the two were separated by less than 17,000 votes, raising the specter of the historically close 2004 gubernatorial election, which Rossi lost after a second recount, and suggesting the race will hinge on turnout.
The GOP held on to all the U.S. House seats it controlled in the state, including Eastern Washington’s 5th District, where three-term incumbent Cathy McMorris Rodgers easily dispatched former television reporter Daryl Romeyn.
McMorris Rodgers, who is No. 4 in House GOP leadership, refused to speculate on whether she would move up as Republicans take control of the House. She said the new majority wants to be a positive force for change and progress, not simply a blockade for President Barack Obama’s agenda. One of her first acts, she said, will be to support a balanced budget amendment.
Although he was trailing badly in all of the district’s counties, Romeyn said he wanted to wait for more results before conceding. He acknowledged, however: “That’s a heck of a margin to close.”
Republican state Rep. Jaime Herrera, a former McMorris Rodgers aide, was comfortably ahead of Democrat Denny Heck for an open House seat in southwestern Washington previously held by Democrat Brian Baird. Republican John Koster had a slim lead over Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen in northwestern Washington.
Republicans also picked up seats in the Legislature, which will face its next session with less money and more restrictions on how it can raise taxes. Democrats seem likely to keep control of both chambers, but with much narrower majorities. Legislators will return to Olympia in January to wrestle with a budget that was already an estimated $3 billion out of whack before Tuesday, when voters cut taxes and told the Legislature it needed a two-thirds supermajority to raise them again.
Republican challenger Mike Baumgartner led Democratic state Sen. Chris Marr in Spokane’s 6th Legislative District contest, where spending topped $1 million, a record for a legislative race in Washington. Baumgartner appeared at the GOP victory celebration at the Davenport Hotel to wild applause, where he complimented Marr and said his opponent will probably remain active in public service. And he said he’d bring a sledgehammer to Olympia to signify the change that he believes is coming.
Marr picked up 4 percentage points in the second count late Tuesday but still trails significantly. He said he believes there are more votes left to count in Democratic-leaning areas than outside city limits.
“If you see that margin tighten up in the next ballot count, then it’s a different race,” he said.
In another race that tightened in late returns, Republican John Ahern also led Democratic state Rep. John Driscoll in the 6th District’s House race. It was a rematch of the 2008 race in which Driscoll ousted Ahern.
Ahern said he was confident he was going back to Olympia, where he’d push a pro-business, pro-senior-citizen agenda and look to extend tax breaks for new businesses.
Democrat Andy Billig won an open state House seat in central Spokane’s 3rd Legislative District. He said his campaign had five college interns, calling it “a validation of how a young campaign can be really effective.”
Incumbents, most of whom are Republicans and many of whom were unchallenged, won the other legislative races in Eastern Washington.
In Spokane County, Republican Al French took an early lead over incumbent County Commissioner Bonnie Mager. Although the early returns were weighted toward the Republican-leaning county precincts, former Spokane City Councilman French said he was feeling confident of victory and said his eight years of municipal experience will add a new dimension to the three-member commission. If so, the county will return to an all-Republican board if the results hold, but French said the three have different perspectives and won’t operate “in lock step.”
Mager, however, was not conceding and a later vote tally brought her within 1,000 votes of French. Results may not be known for days: “It looks like it’s going to be a nail biter.”
In other county races, early returns showed Republican Prosecutor Steve Tucker with a safe lead over Democratic challenger Frank Malone. Tucker could not immediately be reached for comment, but Malone wasn’t ready to concede until he learned more about the results.
“Until somebody knows where these votes came from, it’s hard to know what they mean,” Malone said. “The early results are based on a partial return of the county.”
The county assessor’s race featured two Republicans, and in that case it was the challenger Vicki Horton who was leading incumbent Ralph Baker by a comfortable margin.
County Treasurer Skip Chilberg, a Democrat, was trailing Republican challenger Rob Chase in early returns. Chase had entered the race as a write-in in the primary after no one filed to challenge Chilberg, a former county commissioner.
Democrats appeared to be holding onto the county auditor’s office, as incumbent Vicky Dalton led GOP challenger Leonard Christian.
Voters also decided judicial races, which in Washington are nonpartisan positions. In the state’s one contested Supreme Court race, incumbent Richard Sanders held a narrow lead – about 25,000 votes at night’s end – over challenger Charlie Wiggins. Wiggins was leading in King, Thurston and a few other West Side counties, but Sanders was leading in the rest.
In the county’s one contested district court race, incumbent Debra Hays had a commanding lead over challenger Timothy Note.