When the early vote totals were announced after Aug. 19’s primary election, it looked like good news for the Democrats. Governor Gregoire was beating Dino Rossi by about four and a half percentage points and heading toward 50 percent of the total vote. Darcy Burner was running just a couple of points behind the 8th District incumbent Congressman Dave Reichert and gaining ground fast.
But only about half the votes were counted that night. With nearly 90 percent of the votes now counted, Gregoire has slipped to about 48 percent of the vote, with Rossi about two points back. And Burner has fallen four points behind Reichert. Late votes, expected to trend Democratic, are instead helping Rossi and Reichert.
For Gregoire, this is especially worrisome. The last time an incumbent governor sought re-election was 2000. Democrat Gary Locke, a popular incumbent with a strong economy at his back and a surplus in the bank, was challenged by two viable Republicans in the primary – yours truly and state Sen. Harold Hochstatter. I secured the Republican nomination by defeating Hochstatter in 38 of the state’s 39 counties, but it hardly mattered. Locke gathered 54.5 percent of the total primary vote. No way was the electorate going to fire Locke that November.
This year, Gregoire is running with a slumping economy and a looming budget deficit that may hit the $3 billion mark by October. She had just one – not two – viable challengers, but she’ll finish the primary with no more than 49 of the vote, and that’s assuming she gets kissed by the remaining absentees in King County. Rossi will have money and also a public mood – the yearning for change and a fresh start in Washington, D.C. and Olympia – that positions him well for November.
Burner is also in trouble. Two years ago, the Democrat actually outpolled Reichert, a Republican, in the primary, but lost narrowly in the general. This year, Burner began with more money and higher name recognition. She ran some impressive TV ads. But in spite of all that, she actually lost ground from 2006 and is running about four percentage points behind Reichert, who didn’t run any TV ads.
What went wrong? Three things. First, public anger at Republicans in Congress hit a high point in 2006. This year, the “Pelosi House” is even more unpopular than the Republican Congress, and George Bush is on his way out of town. Second, the Iraq War isn’t as unpopular as it was in 2006, thanks to the success of the surge that Burner ironically opposed. Finally, Reichert is seen as the kind of politician who’s actually reaching across the aisle to get things done, which is what people are looking for. There’s plenty of enthusiasm in the 8th District for Barack Obama, but it’s for him, not the Democratic Party. National Democrats, who have a finite amount of money and a lot of open seats across America to fight for, know this. The Burner campaign will have less out-of-state money than it had hoped for.
Can Burner still win? Yes. So can Gregoire, but both will have a more difficult race than they had the last time around, which is not what people thought when they heard the initial primary results just one week ago.
John Carlson is a radio commentator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.