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Today’s primary: Seats up for grabs; results open to interpretation

Democrat Lisa Brown is the top challenger in the re-election bid of U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley and Dan Pelle / SR)
Democrat Lisa Brown is the top challenger in the re-election bid of U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley and Dan Pelle / SR)

The on-ramp to the November general election closes Tuesday night at 8 p.m., the deadline for getting primary ballots deposited in drop boxes.

Ballots that are mailed Tuesday will have to be postmarked before then to be counted in the make-or-break event for contested races for Congress, the Legislature and county offices.

The race for Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District will probably draw the most attention around the country as incumbent Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, faces a strong challenge from Democrat Lisa Brown, a former state legislator and university official.

The race is hotly contested, with both candidates advertising on the air, on social media, and in print. It may be the reason that turnout in nine of the district’s 10 counties is running ahead of the state average, which as of Monday afternoon was 22 percent. In Spokane County, home to about 70 percent of the district’s voters, returns inched above 29 percent, and the number of ballots received was about 20,000 ahead of the same point in the 2010 and 2014 midterm primary elections.

The day of the election and the day after are typically the heaviest for ballot returns between mail deliveries and those placed in drop boxes before the deadline.

Brown and McMorris Rodgers share the ballot with two other Republicans and a self-styled Trump Populist, so the results likely will be split, leaving them open to different interpretations. Conventional wisdom says an incumbent who picks up less than half the votes in a primary can be in trouble, because it signals a majority of voters may be willing to vote for someone else.

That hasn’t always proved true in 5th Congressional District primaries.

In 2000, incumbent Rep. George Nethercutt got 45 percent of the vote in the primary, and many people thought he might pay a price for going back on his promise to serve only three terms. But Nethercutt still beat Democrat Tom Keefe with 57 percent of the vote in November

In 2016, McMorris Rodgers picked up only 42 percent of the primary vote, which was her weakest showing in a congressional re-election. But she easily beat Democrat Joe Pakootas in the general election.

In both cases, the Republican incumbent faced challenges from Republican or other conservative opponents. Richard Clear, a local radio talk-show host, picked up 20 percent of the Republican vote in the 2000 primary, and his supporters were more likely to switch to Nethercutt in the general.

McMorris Rodgers faced another Republican, a Libertarian and a conservative independent in 2016. Pakootas gained some ground in the general, but she still won with 59 percent of the vote.

The real harbinger of an upset would be an incumbent significantly below 50 percent in a primary with a challenger close behind, or where supporters of the losing candidates would be likely to vote for the challenger going on to the general.

The last time that happened in the district was 1994, when 30-year incumbent Tom Foley, the Democratic speaker of the House, managed only 35 percent of the primary vote. While that put him ahead of Nethercutt, who got 29.5 percent, three other Republicans combined for 36 percent of the vote and Nethercutt went on to beat Foley narrowly in the general.

This year’s 29-person U.S. Senate primary might be open to multiple interpretations if incumbent Democrat Maria Cantwell’s vote total falls significantly below 50 percent.

Republican candidates make up 13 of the 28 challengers to Cantwell, with some much better known than others. Susan Hutchison is a former television newscaster in Seattle and the former state party chairwoman. Joey Gibson is the leader of the conservative Patriot Prayer Group. Physician Art Corday has run for the Senate before. Others are political novices, and one who legally changed his name to GoodSpaceGuy years ago is a perennial candidate who has run under many different party banners.

The race also features several independents, a Libertarian, a Green Party member, some candidates who have created their own party and four Democrats taking issue with Cantwell on various topics. Predicting who those voters will support in the general election could be difficult.

The state’s primary system allows the top two vote-getters to advance to the general election regardless of party preference. In the past, that has meant strong Republican districts sometimes have two Republicans in the general and strong Democratic districts have two Democrats.

It also means in primary races with only two candidates of the same party – such as the Spokane County Commissioner District 2 or Spokane County assessor, which both only have Republican candidates – will have both candidates advance to the general.

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