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Candidates didn’t flock to Washington for presidential primary

UPDATED: Tue., March 10, 2020

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign event in Tacoma, Wash., Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a campaign event in Tacoma, Wash., Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

When the Legislature last year moved Washington’s presidential primary to early March to give its voters more say in the selection of the parties’ nominees, some supporters predicted that would generate an influx of candidates coming to the state to campaign.

That didn’t happen in the last week.

Some political observers said that may have been a combination of concern over the COVID-19 outbreak, which hit Washington ahead of other states, and the quick exit of many candidates immediately before and after last week’s Super Tuesday contests.

The presidential primary, which requires ballots to be turned in by 8 p.m. Tuesdayor postmarked by the end of the day, was not such a strong magnet for candidates. It is the first in state history which both parties will use to determine how many national convention delegates each candidate gets.

For Washington Republicans, that decision has already been made because President Donald Trump is the only GOP candidate on the ballot. The state’s 89 Democratic National Convention delegates, however, are up for grabs.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders held a rally at the Tacoma Dome that drew some 17,000 on Feb. 17, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren drew an estimated 7,000 to Seattle Center on Feb. 22. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg had planned an event in Seattle last Friday, but that was canceled after he dropped out on March 1.

“What happened? The last two weeks happened,” said Senate State Government Committee Chairman Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, who helped usher the new presidential primary law through the Legislature last year.

“I think the coronavirus had something to do with it,” Hunt said, who added that the other big factor was the winnowing of the large field of Democratic candidates to just two main contenders, Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Of the 13 Democratic candidates on the Washington presidential primary ballot, only those two and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard remain in the race.

“Part of it was Super Tuesday,” said Secretary of State Kim Wyman, the state’s chief elections officer. Many of the campaigns were focused on last Tuesday’s races and planning events in those states, she said.

“I definitely think a lot of it is coronavirus,” Wyman said. The weekend before Super Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency for the virus outbreak and later suggested people voluntarily refrain from attending large gatherings.

The abrupt exit of candidates along with the outbreak was a “one-two punch” to the prospects of drawing candidate visits, she said. But that doesn’t mean the candidates ignored the state, Wyman and others added.

Billionaire businessman Mike Bloomberg, Warren and Sanders had campaign staff in the state. Bloomberg advertised on television before dropping out.

Will Casey, spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said Sanders’ and Warren’s visits were timed to coincide with the mailing of ballots in late February. He doesn’t think coronavirus was a factor in decisions whether to campaign in Washington over the last week, but he does think Washington’s all-mail election won’t be affected by the outbreak because it doesn’t result in long lines at polling stations.

“If every state did their elections the way we do ours, coronavirus wouldn’t be an issue,” Casey said.

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