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O’Quinn finish triggers hunches, but map telling

Every campaign worth a darn leaves a losing candidate’s supporters with some hard feelings, nagging questions and what ifs.

So Shelly O’Quinn’s third-place finish in a 6th Legislative District House race understandably vexes some folks who believe she has great potential to be a rising GOP star. As they ponder why she lost, some apparently have a theory that Democratic perfidy helped do her in.

The theory, recounted by one supporter, is that Democrats were afraid that freshman incumbent John Driscoll would have a much harder time in the general against O’Quinn than John Ahern. There’s some logic to that speculation: Driscoll beat Ahern, a well-entrenched incumbent, two years ago, so history is on their side.

Ahern outpolled O’Quinn, but she outspent him. The Gallatin Group, a regional public affairs organization that has people who follow politics the way others follow Gonzaga basketball, opined in an election eve epistle “Pondering Politics in the Inland Northwest”:

“Here’s our prediction. In an Ahern vs. Driscoll match-up, Driscoll wins. However, the Gallatin office is split in our prediction that if O’Quinn manages a win tomorrow the seat will return back to its Republican roots with an O’Quinn victory in November against Driscoll.”

So wily Democrats could try to sway the outcome of the primary by voting for Ahern now, then switch to Driscoll in November. Or so the speculation goes.

Speculation is one thing. Facts are something else.

First, it assumes Democrats are organized enough to persuade willing Driscoll voters to cast ballots for Ahern. Local Democrats have shown themselves anything but organized this year, from failing to field candidates for many legislative seats to recruiting a congressional hopeful who failed to win a single county in the 5th District.

Second, if there were some kind of plot, it would show up in a comparison of the vote totals for the House race and the 6th District Senate race. Democrat Sen. Chris Marr pulled down about 2,000 more votes than fellow Democrat Driscoll, while Ahern and Quinn combined for about 4,000 more votes than Republican Senate hopeful Mike Baumgartner.

Considering that Marr and Driscoll have similar voting histories that would attract the same partisan support, if something fishy were going on, a pattern should emerge: Ahern should consistently do much better in strong Marr precincts as Democrats crossed over to vote for Ahern to help Driscoll down the road; O’Quinn should consistently run stronger in precincts where Baumgartner ran far ahead of Marr.

When the newspaper fed vote totals into computer mapping software, it showed that isn’t what happened. At least not consistently.

Ahern did very well in some of the precincts where Baumgartner did very well, but O’Quinn also ran strong in some strong Baumgartner precincts. And both had successes and failures in precincts that Marr won handily.

What the maps show more conclusively is that Ahern won because he won more of those same Republican-leaning precincts that Baumgartner won, by bigger margins than O’Quinn won her precincts. It’s a pretty simple equation: Win more votes in more places, and you win the election.

Spin Control, a weekly column by veteran reporter Jim Camden, also appears online as a blog with daily items, reader comments and videos. To see the computer maps of the votes, go to
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