For voters in cities, towns and school districts across Washington, Tuesday’s primary is the first big step in making choices for their mayors, council members and board members.
For candidates in those areas, it’s the make-or-break qualifier for moving on to the general election.
For some donors, it’s a yardstick for deciding whether, and how much, they will give to a campaign.
What it’s not, however, is a definite predictor of who will win in November, any more than the latest polls in the presidential race can predict who will win in 2020. The period between the primary and the general is subject to a basic law of politics, known as SH, for “stuff happens.”
Partisan and nonpartisan races in Spokane have been good examples of the rule of SH over the years, with some candidates who won big in the primary coming up short in the general election.
The 2011 Spokane mayoral race is a prime recent example of SH. Incumbent Mary Verner received 59.3% of the vote in a five-person primary; David Condon was a fairly distant second with 33.6%. But three months later, Condon won the general election with 52.4% of the vote.
Among the stuff that happened was a huge shift in the amount of money the candidates raised and spent. At the time of the primary, Condon had raised about $153,000, and Verner about $95,000.
While that’s a significant edge, it’s nothing compared to how much the candidates raised between the primary and the general. Condon collected slightly more than $138,000; Verner about $33,500. Although Spokane municipal races are nonpartisan, the political parties did get involved. But the state Republican Party gave Condon $63,000 while the state Democratic Party gave Verner $3,000.
With that larger campaign fund, Condon was able to buy more ads, hire more consultants and pay more professional campaign staff.
Another thing that changed significantly between the primary and the general was the turnout, which more than doubled from 26% to 56.5%. A shift that large in the voter pool can mean different issues or opinions are turning out.
The Verner-Condon race wasn’t the only race in the city of Spokane that saw a shift that year. In the race for City Council president, Dennis Hession finished ahead of Ben Stuckart in the primary, with 37% of the vote compared to 30%. Stuckart won the general, 53% to 47%.
Local politics is full of other examples of candidates coming on strongly or voters changing their minds between the primary and the general. In the 2007 mayoral race, Hession finished slightly ahead of Verner in the primary, but she won by 4 percentage points in the general. Hession and Al French essentially tied in the primary for council president in 2003, but Hession won by 7 percentage points in the general.
LaVerne Biel finished 2.5 percentage points ahead of Lorie Kinnear in the 2015 council race, but Kinnear won the general by 9 percentage points.
In each of these cases, the primary was winnowing the field of three or more candidates, and voters supporting a candidate who gets eliminated can be up for grabs in municipal elections, although not quite so much in races for the Legislature or other partisan offices.
In 2012, for example, Democrat Dennis Dellwo finished 10 percentage points ahead of Republican Jeff Holy in a four-way race for an open House seat in the 6th Legislative District. But the 6th is usually a Republican district, and the three GOP candidates got 58% of the primary vote. Holy won the general with 55%.
Partisan characterizations don’t always hold sway, however. In the 6th District Senate race in 2006, incumbent Republican Brad Benson got 57% of the primary vote and Democratic challenger Chris Marr got 43%. But those figures nearly flipped in the general as Marr won the seat with nearly 55% of the vote.
Marr spent twice as much as Benson, although that disparity was true for the primary as well as the general, and the turnout nearly doubled for the general election. The general also may have been influenced by a wave of Democratic voters nationwide, which put that party in control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years.
But a national wave can’t always explain a turnaround between the primary and general, either. In 1980, Ronald Reagan running for president gave Republicans a big boost all over the state – except in one Spokane legislative district. Democrat challenger Jerry Hughes, a House member, had collected only 42% of the vote against incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Lewis in the primary. But Hughes outworked Lewis in September and October, and while Democrats as high as U.S. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson were being knocked off by Republicans, Hughes beat Lewis with 52% of the vote.
The top vote-getters of some races in Tuesday’s primary will come out on top in November. But neither they nor their supporters should get too confident, because that’s often when stuff happens.
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