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State GOP getting closer with suburbanites

Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Sen. Patty Murray

The dust is starting to settle now on the 2010 mid-term elections and the picture is getting clearer.  The Republican wave rolled across the country, but it wasn’t big enough here to oust veteran Democratic office holders like Patty Murray, partly because the Democrats saw it coming and worked feverishly in the last few days to turn their voters out.

The main factor here, however, was the fact that Republicans once again simply failed to win enough votes in the Puget Sound, particularly in King County.

Republicans will end up gaining one seat in Congress (maybe two, but the odds seem heavily in favor Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen holding on to his lead against John Koster); four, maybe five, seats in the state Senate; and three to five seats in the state House.  The Democrats will continue to hold solid but reduced majorities in both houses.

Significantly, virtually all the Republican gains are coming in open seats or against freshman lawmakers, while many veteran Democrats are surviving by narrow margins.

Jaime Herrera won an open seat race in the 3rd Congressional District. In the state Senate, Democratic senators Chris Marr, Eric Oemig, Claudia Kaufman, and Randy Gordon, are all losing.  Gordon was appointed to an open seat; Marr, Oemig and Kaufman were all freshmen. Another Democratic Senate freshman, Steve Hobbs, is in a race that is too close to call.

In the House, Republicans won an open seat race in Clark County, and defeated a freshman Democrat in suburban Spokane. They also defeated veteran Rep. Geoff Simpson, who was weakened by legal issues. Two veteran Democratic representatives, Kelli Linville in Whatcom County and Dawn Morrell in Puyallup, are in races that are too close to call.

Sen. Murray, Congressman Larsen (apparently), and about a dozen veteran Democratic legislators, on the other hand, saw their margin of victory greatly diminished compared to previous elections, but they hung on. Why did Dino Rossi and so many other Republican challengers come up just short?

One factor was certainly the surge in Democratic turnout in the final days of the election. Both state parties mounted huge turnout efforts, making hundreds of thousands paid and volunteer contacts, reminding their partisans to turn in their ballots. The Washington State Republican Party made over 1 million volunteer contacts, 300,000 of those occurring in the last five days of the election. For whatever reason, however, the Democratic vote spiked in the final days of the campaign.

On the Sunday before the election, more ballots had been turned in in the 4th Congressional District (Wenatchee, Yakima, Tri-Cities) than in the 7th CD (Seattle). On the Monday before the election, 4 percent more ballots had been turned in in the King County suburbs than in the city of Seattle. Now, the number of votes cast in the 7th CD is slightly larger than the number of votes cast in the 4th CD; and the ballot return rate in Seattle has caught up with the percentage returned in the suburbs.

This late surge in D turnout has caused all the counts since election day to tilt heavily to the Democrats. Democratic candidates at every level and all across the state have seen their vote percentage increase by one to two percentage points.

Maybe the Democrats designed their turnout program to peak during the final weekend, or maybe Democratic voters were motivated by press reports about Sen. Murray being in danger due to an “enthusiasm gap.” Either way, the data in terms of ballots returned makes it clear that Democrats mailed in their ballots late.

Turnout, however, is not what defeated Dino Rossi and denied Republicans majorities in the legislature. Turnout was higher in 2004 when Dino Rossi first ran for governor, and yet he did significantly better in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties in that election than he did this year. In 2004, Rossi won Pierce by 4 percentage points and won Snohomish by 2 points. Now he is barely ahead in Pierce and slightly behind in Snohomish. Most importantly, in 2004, Rossi received 40 percent of the vote in King County, losing the county to Chris Gregoire by 18 points in a race that included a Libertarian.  This year he is receiving 36 percent of the vote in King, losing it to Murray by 28 percentage points.

On the legislative side, by and large Republicans were seeking to oust suburban incumbents who would not have been considered vulnerable were it not for the national Republican tide. Incumbents who lose are usually those who won previous elections by narrow margins. Virtually all the Democratic incumbents who are winning close races this year were elected previously with well over 55 percent of the vote.

The Republican wave was real. It increased Republican percentages significantly. It just wasn’t big enough to defeat Democrats who had won multiple elections by large margins.

So the Republican losing streak in major statewide races (governor and senator) continues. To win statewide, a Republican must win Pierce and Snohomish and attract 40 percent of the vote in King County. To attain legislative majorities, the Republicans must continue to win back Puget Sound districts. Message, not mechanics, is the key.

Republicans must find candidates and messages that will appeal to moderate, pragmatic, well-educated suburban voters. In the past two elections the GOP has won back seven suburban legislative seats, proving that it can be done.

Republicans are disappointed now that more wasn’t won in 2010, but in the post-Bush era, Washington state is once again a competitive battleground, and that is progress for the GOP.

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