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Shawn Vestal: Stuckart explains decision to quickly concede mayor’s race as observers left stunned

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 6, 2019

Ben Stuckart leaves the stage after conceding to Nadine Woodward in the Spokane Mayor’s race, Tuesday at the Lucky You Lounge. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Ben Stuckart leaves the stage after conceding to Nadine Woodward in the Spokane Mayor’s race, Tuesday at the Lucky You Lounge. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

One of the most common reactions to Tuesday’s election results was: He conceded? So soon?

Ben Stuckart, down by fewer than 2,000 votes with tens of thousands of votes still to count, conceded so quickly to Nadine Woodward in the mayor’s race that it was still the talk of the election Wednesday.

That’s a pretty big lead for Woodward, and initial trends in vote-counting are virtually always borne out in final counts. Stuckart’s chances would have to be considered very slim at the most optimistic, requiring him to show much stronger in later counting than he did early.

Still, the concession seemed awfully quick, with days of ballot-counting left. Stuckart heard as much himself from the moment he did it, he said Wednesday, as he was traveling for a post-campaign vacation.

“I’ve had people asking me, ‘Why did you concede?’ ” he said. “Because it’s mathematically impossible for me to win. Barring a miracle, I lost.”

Impossible may be a stretch, though unlikely is certainly true. After Tuesday’s initial vote count, Woodward, the former TV anchor who ran on a platform of sweeping homeless people off the streets, was ahead with 52% of the vote. Her real-number advantage was 1,831. That increased to 1,883 in Wednesday’s count of additional ballots, with 54,000 still to count.

The first figures were announced at about 8:15 Tuesday night. Stuckart conceded within minutes.

“I was shocked that Ben conceded like he did,” said Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who was leading narrowly in her own race. “I’m still keeping up hope, though people are telling me it’s impossible for him to catch up.”

On Tuesday night and Wednesday, people on both sides of the political divide expressed a similar surprise. Tim Benn said he was taken aback – and still holding out hope in his own race, which he trailed in – and Michael Cathcart said he was shocked. Council members Stratton, Lori Kinnear and Breean Beggs, all ideological fellow-travelers of Stuckart’s, said they weren’t considering the race over just yet.

I’m not conceding his race yet,” Beggs said. “I’m not saying it’s likely (Stuckart can come back), but I just want more data.”

Kinnear said, “Until the votes are all counted, I’m not ready to say (he) lost. I’m going to be optimistic.”

Close political observers always emphasize that trends established by initial counting very rarely shift dramatically as the count continues. I get that and have seen it borne out repeatedly in elections.

Still, it’s understandable that people wonder why the initial count might be seen as so definitive, when it wasn’t much more than half the total expected votes. At this stage, with more than 50,000 ballots uncounted across the entire county, it’s not clear how many of those will be city ballots.

With that number of raw votes uncounted, it can be hard to view a 2,000-vote gap as set in stone – particularly for those who were hoping Stuckart would win.

Stuckart’s math goes something like this: He was running at about 47% in the first batch of ballots counted. To overtake Woodward, Stuckart would need 55% of the remaining votes, he said. That’s a shift that would require a miracle, he said. And he said he wasn’t seeing a dramatic change in the trend among incoming ballots.

“No way I’m going to go from 48% to getting 55% of those votes,” he said.

Like Woodward, Cindy Wendle emerged Tuesday with a lead over Beggs, her opponent in the race for council president, and it grew a bit Wednesday. But Wendle’s lead was 850 votes – still too close to call. Similarly, Andy Rathbun trails Karen Stratton in the race for a council seat by a margin that does not seem insurmountable – 373 votes.

Vote counting will continue for the next few days. It is very, very likely that the candidates who are leading now will win, and it is particularly likely that Woodward’s lead will hold. Stuckart’s concession was based on the likeliest of likelihoods.

Still, it took a lot of people by surprise, and his supporters seemed particularly stunned by it. Some simply wanted him to hang in there, and let the votes be counted. Others say they believe that he wanted to avoid a drawn-out, days-long march toward the inevitable.

But they wonder what will happen if the “mathematically impossible” occurs, and he makes up the difference.

“If some miracle happens and the votes still do come in,” Stuckart said, “I still win.”