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Analysis: The paths to victory for Brown and McMorris Rodgers

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 5, 2018

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, left, and challenger Lisa Brown face each other when asked to say something nice about the other person during their second midterm congressional race debate, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, at the Fox Theater in Spokane, Wash. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, left, and challenger Lisa Brown face each other when asked to say something nice about the other person during their second midterm congressional race debate, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, at the Fox Theater in Spokane, Wash. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

We’ve spent months writing about the issues, examining the ads and interviewing the candidates on your ballot for Tuesday’s election.

And now the election is around the corner.

The talk nationwide is of the potential for a blue wave, which could push many more Democrats into office. But Eastern Washington is Republican territory, as is the whole of Spokane County.

So even if there is a wave, could it make a difference in who holds the seats here?


There can be little doubt that Cathy McMorris Rodgers is the favorite to win what has shaped up to be her most intense and difficult re-election bid.

But it is not a sure thing.

Nate Silver, perhaps the nation’s top political odds-maker, puts McMorris Rodgers’ odds of winning at 7-in-9. That’s pretty good, but it’s not that much better than Silver’s 2016 odds that Hillary Clinton would be elected president. So, yeah, McMorris Rodgers could lose too.

But Brown’s obstacles are easy to see looking at the primary numbers. After the first count on primary night, Brown and McMorris Rodgers were nearly tied. And that was a big morale boost to Brown’s campaign. After all ballots were counted, however, she lost by more than 4 percentage points. If you add in the count from three mostly unknown Republicans who finished third, fourth and fifth, you might assume Brown is starting with a deficit of more like 8 or 9 percentage points.

Truthfully, though, we shouldn’t assume that the 4.5 percent of the electorate who voted for the three lesser-known Republicans will all vote for McMorris Rodgers. Some may opt to skip the race without their top choice on the ballot. Others may be most interested in change and actually pick Brown.

So let’s say Brown’s starting deficit is closer to 7 percentage points. Can she make that up?

Here’s the argument you can make if you’re on Brown’s team:

Turnout, baby! We’re on track for record turnout in Spokane County in the mail-voting era. And Spokane County (as well as Whitman) are the two counties Brown most needs to turn out in big numbers to win.

College kids are back. The general election will include college votes from several campuses that weren’t available in the primary, and there’s little doubt that vote will trend Democratic.

Money matched. In past elections, McMorris Rodgers dominated her rivals in fundraising and spending, but this year, eager Democrats kept Brown’s coffers on par with McMorris Rodgers, allowing Brown to get her message out after the primary.

Prepared debater. In their three face-to-face televised debates, Brown appeared more comfortable and in control and seemed better prepared.

The wave. As Nate Silver would tell you, it wouldn’t be crazy for predictions of a Democratic wave to be off. Sure, it could be that as a result of a systematic polling error, Republicans will hold their own. But it’s also possible that polls could be under-predicting Democrats’ strength. If that’s the case – watch out, GOP – many seats in Republican-dominated territory would fall.

If Condon can do it, so can Brown. You might remember when David Condon finished second to Mayor Verner in Spokane’s 2011 primary. Not just second. Second behind Verner by more than 25 percentage points. And then he came back to win the general election by about 5 percentage points.

But McMorris Rodgers’ team also has solid (and perhaps, better) arguments in its favor:

Turnout’s tricky. While high turnout may be a good sign for Brown, crazy-high turnout could signal that everyone’s motivated to vote, not just Democrats and those angered by Trump. And Republicans seemed to gain new energy after Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hearings. Turnout so far appears strong in all of Spokane County’s legislative districts, including the ones that lean Republican.

And while we’re on turnout: Turnout was impressive during the primary, and McMorris Rodgers still won. Do you really think Brown can find thousands of voters who didn’t vote in the primary?

Debate Schmabate. McMorris Rodgers held her own in the three debates with Brown. And who watches congressional debates, anyway?

College votes: Just because college students come back to campus, doesn’t mean they’ll change their voter registration to the 5th Congressional District to vote. And past elections haven’t shown that big of a boost for Democratic candidates as a result of college voters. Youth may bring passion to Brown’s team, but turnout among college students in recent years remains low compared to the rest of the voter population.

Don’t even go there. Sure, David Condon’s 2011 victory deserves a chapter in the best comebacks in Spokane political history, but this is not 2011. Condon was unknown to the electorate in the primary. He also had a clear fundraising advantage, a professional campaign staff (unlike Verner) and was able to make big issues out of news events that happened after the primary but before the November election.

A united GOP. In past years, some of the most conservative Republicans have been lukewarm about McMorris Rodgers. But she reached out to the most conservative of them, state Rep Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, early this year, an effort that seems to have paid off with his endorsement. In some previous elections, Shea has withheld his support. (Of course, that endorsement may not be as appealing with news last week about Shea’s distribution of a paper on “Biblical War.”)

Speaking of Shea

Those who oppose Shea have tried different tactics to unseat him in past elections.

Democrats tried with a progressive Amy Biviano in 2012. She lost by 13 percentage points.

Republicans tried to out-conservative him in 2014 with Josh Arritola. He lost by 15 percentage points.

Both sides gave up two years ago when Shea’s opponent didn’t bother campaigning. Shea beat him by nearly 30 percentage points.

Democrat Ted Cummings, a longtime worker at Kaiser Trentwood, is his challenger this time. He’s run an active campaign, and his strong union bona fides and vocal backing for the little guy might seem a bit like the last Democrat to hold a seat in the 4th Legislative District, George Orr.

Orr, however, lost his seat 24 years ago, and Cummings lost by 15 percentage points in this year’s primary, a gap that wouldn’t seem to provide him much of a chance three months later.

But remember that 2011 David Condon turn-around? News this week that several of Shea’s large donors were asking Shea to refund their campaign contributions after a former Shea supporter leaked Shea’s Biblical War memo would seemingly give Cummings an outside chance.

On the other hand, voters have known about numerous other controversies involving Shea and stood by him before, and there are few signs that other elected Republicans will abandon him (with the exception of Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who has openly criticized him for years now).

Can Democrats win a seat (or three) in the 6th?

Probably the Republicans’ biggest worry in local elections on Tuesday is in the 6th Legislative District. It is Eastern Washington’s only swing district. And it hadn’t really been a swing district since redistricting after 2010.

In the August primary, however, Democrats won more votes in the race for an open House seat, and a Democrat was only 200 votes behind in the race for the other House position.

The race for the Senate, between Republican Jeff Holy and Democrat Jessa Lewis, was close enough to indicate it’s in play, too. A dirty-trick mailer paid for by conservatives trying to lure liberals to vote for a write-in Senate candidate who is not a write-in candidate (and supports Lewis) could backfire.

Could Avista’s big spending backfire?

Incumbent county Commissioners Mary Kuney and Al French are favorites to win new terms, but there are unknowns.

French lost to Robbi Katherine Anthony in the primary, but that was to be expected in his Democratic-leaning district. The fight in the general election moves to the full county, where voters haven’t picked a Democratic county commissioner since 2006.

Democrats opted not to field a candidate against Kuney, and she easily won in her Spokane Valley district in the primary against the tea party favorite Rob Chase.

But Chase has since embraced a new campaign issue, and though it’s unclear a county commissioner could do much of anything to stop the sale of Avista to Ontario-based HydroOne, it is an issue that concerns many ratepayers.

Avista spent $100,000 each to create ads for French and Kuney. Avista’s dramatic involvement in the races gives Chase and French’s opponent, Robbi Katherine Anthony, an air of David fighting Goliath, and that’s not a bad image for your campaign if you’re an underdog.

Also, Democrat Anthony has the surprising chance to pick up votes from the same folks who back Shea. After Avista spent the money on Kuney and French, Grassroots Northwest, a tea party group, suggested to its Facebook followers: “THROW them OUT!” (Cecily Wright, the Spokane County Republican Party chairwoman who was forced to resign over the summer, but remains active in Grassroots Northwest, later said that she is backing Chase, not Anthony.)

Could the stadium sink middle schools?

Spokane voters have been generous to Spokane Public Schools in the recent past, backing construction bonds that have remade many schools.

This year, the schools are asking for $495 million, mostly for middle schools. It has wide support from the business community and no organized opposition, but so much of the focus of the project has been on a new football stadium to replace the dilapidated and morbidly obese Joe Albi Stadium, as opposed to the main purpose of the proposal, new middle schools.

Voters might be OK with a new stadium, but there has been confusion by a second advisory vote on where the stadium should be located. And the decision-making about how to handle a stadium in the bond appeared rushed.

Confusion is never good when so much money is at stake, especially since it needs to reach 60 percent support to pass.

Jonathan Brunt is The Spokesman-Review’s government editor.

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