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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sanders trounces Clinton in Washington caucuses, captures Spokane County

During the Democratic Precinct Caucuses, Precinct 3124 has a show of hands for who supports presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, on Saturday, March 26, 2016, at Rogers High School. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Jim Camden and Nick Deshais The Spokesman-Review

A week of Bernie fever in the Inland Northwest culminated in Saturday’s Democratic caucuses, which show that Democrats in Spokane County and throughout Washington favor Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president.

Sanders easily won the Washington caucus on Saturday, capturing 73 percent of delegates statewide with 100 percent of precincts counted. In Spokane County he did even better, winning 78 percent of delegates, according to the state Democratic Party. Sanders won every county.

The results were almost as lopsided as Sanders’ caucus win in Idaho on Tuesday where he took 78 percent of the vote, and followed two Sanders rallies in Spokane since March 20, one which drew nearly 10,000 supporters by Sanders campaign estimates.

Participants in Saturday’s caucus selected about 27,000 delegates from around the state to continue a process that leads to picking national convention delegates.

Sanders’ win should help him take most of Washington’s 101 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention, where the party’s nominee will be chosen in July. But there are more steps to go to determine the final breakdown.

On Saturday morning at Rogers High School, one of several caucus locations in Spokane County, precinct after precinct backed Sanders, often by lopsided margins, including one that voted 35-3.

After all the votes were counted, the northeast Spokane precincts that caucused at Rogers awarded 119 delegates to the party’s county convention for Sanders and only 25 for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The count was done quickly at Rogers, even though more than 1,000 people turned out. Officials expected 600.

Latisha Austin, 26, came to the caucus supporting Clinton but listed herself as undecided after talking to some neighbors.

“His politics sound a lot better than hers,” she said.

Austin said she believes the country is ready for a female president, and is confident Clinton would move the nation past the abortion debate.

Vania Hennes, 26, brought her 10-month old son, Jaleel, to the caucus, and was trying to convert Austin to Sanders’ column.

“He was genuinely part of the civil rights rallies” in the 1960s, Hennes said. “He walked with Martin Luther King.”

Not everyone supported Sanders, though it was hard to tell by the shirts, buttons and signs in the crowd.

Marion Kiehn, 75, wore one of the few Clinton buttons in sight.

“I was in the minority,” Kiehn said as she left Rogers with her husband, Al. “The young people really like him. He promises free college for everyone. She says not everybody needs free college. Rich people don’t.”

Saturday’s caucuses had a far different feel from those held in Idaho on Tuesday. Unlike Idaho, which at times felt like dueling rallies held in one venue, Spokane caucus participants piled into local schools and divided themselves by geographical voter precincts. Groups of 10 to 40 people discussed the candidates’ merits and attempted to sway people who were undecided.

A soft murmur of conversation settled over Rogers’ common area. In contrast, at Tuesday’s caucus at North Idaho College’s Boswell Hall, chants intermittently overpowered any attempt at normal conversation.

Over the last 40 years, Washington’s Democratic caucus attendees have an uneven track record when it comes to backing the eventual winner when their party didn’t hold the White House.

They backed Sen. Henry Jackson, a favorite son, in 1976; Gary Hart over Walter Mondale in 1984; Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown over Bill Clinton in 1992. They went for Michael Dukakis in 1988, but only narrowly over Jesse Jackson, were slightly stronger for Al Gore over Bill Bradley in 2000, and gave John Kerry only a plurality over Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich in 2004.

In 2008, however, they went for Barack Obama more than 2-to-1 over Hillary Clinton.

The precinct caucuses are the beginning, not the end, of the delegate selection process in Washington. The state has 101 delegates that can be pledged to a candidate based on the outcome of that process, and the relative strength of Sanders and Clinton among caucusgoers will determine the division if neither candidate drops out.

But delegates selected to their county conventions and legislative district caucuses must attend those events, where delegates to the state convention and congressional district caucuses are selected.

A total of 67 national convention delegates will be selected at the 10 congressional district caucuses in May, and 34 will be selected at the state convention in June. Washington also has 17 top elected officials and party national committee members, who are automatic delegates, or superdelegates, to the convention and free to support either candidate.

More than 150,000 people preregistered for the Democratic caucuses as of Saturday morning, state party spokesman Jamal Raad said. In addition, about 35,000 people voted in advance due to conflicts with work schedules, religious observances, illnesses, disabilities or military service.

The party had a record 250,000 people turn out for the caucuses in 2008, when Obama handily beat Clinton.

Ken Crofoot, 57, supported Sanders but would vote for a third-party candidate in the general election, arguing that Washington is solidly Democratic so his vote wouldn’t contribute to putting a Republican in the White House. He acknowledged it was a strategic vote.

“Game theory,” he said. “When you’re a pawn, act like one.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.