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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Figuring the governor’s primary, over the years

Jim Camden

Candidates and their campaigns are apt to get caught up in the excitement of election night and say things that, in the light of later days, don’t hold up well.

As state primary returns were being reported Tuesday night, Republican Bill Bryant’s gubernatorial campaign came up with an interesting way to spin results that showed him 10 percentage points behind Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

First, Inslee was under 50 percent, which the Bryant campaign declared a vote of “no confidence.” And if one combines “the two Republican Bills,” the campaign said, it was really a case of 42 percent to 48 percent.


For those who have already forgotten, the long list of gubernatorial wannabes in the primary included Bill Hirt, another Republican. The retired Boeing engineer, who didn’t campaign much and apparently spent nothing but his filing fee, got just under 4 percent, which was good enough to finish third.

Spin Control knows of no formula that allows one candidate to add on the votes of another with a shared party and first name. If we started doing that, where would we stop? Would we have to give Inslee the votes of the two Democrats whose names start with J?

A slippery slope indeed.

The suggestion that a showing under 50 percent in the primary spells trouble in the general election does not hold up under scrutiny, either. In 2008, incumbent Chris Gregoire got 48.3 percent of the vote compared to Dino Rossi’s 46.4 percent; Gregoire won the general. That’s the only top-two primary with an incumbent governor, and that’s not much of a pattern. But there are patterns in gubernatorial primaries over the last 60 years. Here’s a list with general-election winners in upper case; incumbents, when they run, marked with an asterisk; and the total number of candidates in the primary.

See if any patterns pop out:

2012: INSLEE 47 percent, Rob McKenna 43 percent (9 candidates)

2008: GREGOIRE* 48.3 percent, Rossi 46.4 percent (10 candidates)

2004: GREGOIRE 38.7 percent, Rossi 34.1 percent (11 candidates)

2000: GARY LOCKE* 54.3 percent, John Carlson 34.5 percent (5 candidates)

1996: LOCKE 23.7 percent, Ellen Craswell 15.3 percent (15 candidate race)

1992: MIKE LOWRY 29.2 percent, Ken Eikenberry 22.4 percent (11 candidate race)

1988: BOOTH GARDNER* 57.6 percent, Bob Williams 20.1 percent (8 candidates)

1984: GARDNER 46.1 percent, John Spellman* 26.2 percent (8 candidates)

1980: Jim McDermott 33 percent, SPELLMAN 16.7 percent (14 candidates)

1976: DIXY LEE RAY 24.1 percent, Spellman 21.8 percent (9 candidates)

1972: Al Rosellini 30.3 percent, DAN EVANS* 24.7 percent (9 candidates)

1968: EVANS* 43.4 percent, John O’Connell 26 percent (8 candidates)

1964: EVANS 39.1 percent, Rosellini* 29.4 percent (8 candidates)

1960: Lloyd Andrews 37.4 percent, ROSELLINI* 34.7 percent (5 candidates)

1956: ROSELLINI 31.6 percent, Emmett Anderson 25.8 percent (10 candidates)

The first thing you might notice is Washington rarely lacks candidates who think they should be governor. Before 2008, the state had a blanket primary, so the top Democrat and the top Republican advanced to the general election, regardless of how big their percentage. Minor-party candidates could qualify for the general election, too, if they got enough votes.

The clearest pattern is that with few exceptions, the candidate with the most votes in the primary won the general election. And if the state had the top-two primary in 1980, Spellman wouldn’t have gone to the general because he actually finished third overall in the primary. Ray, the incumbent Democratic governor, finished second to McDermott, who was then a state senator. So she was out, Spellman was in, and he beat McDermott in the general. Incumbents rarely had more than 50 percent, and that wasn’t usually fatal.

So the “top 50 percent in the primary” standard for an incumbent isn’t a prerequisite for eventual victory. If it were hard and fast, Bryant’s fellow Republican Chris Vance might as well fold his tent in the U.S. Senate race, where incumbent Patty Murray is at 53 percent.

Donors sometimes use it when deciding whether to pour money into a race. But they also look at other things, such as how close the challenger is to the incumbent, which may be why the Bryant campaign was trying to close the gap to “striking distance” with the two Republican Bills equation.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments, at spincontrol.

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