Moderate Landslide

Contrary to fears—or hopes—Washington's new partisan primary didn't much help the candidates on the far left or the far right.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. At the top of the Democratic and Republican tickets, Washington's new partisan primary produced results just like the state's blanket primary did for 67 years: It rewarded candidates with moderate messages and good name familiarity. Further down the ticket, the message was less clear from voters as issues like educational testing and negative advertising competed for the public's attention.

The most overwhelming victory of the night came in the highest profile race: the battle for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination between State Attorney General Christine Gregoire and King County Executive Ron Sims. Gregoire ran as if she planned on attracting thousands of Republican and independent voters to her cause—and evidently she did. She won overwhelmingly in every county, even Sims'. Her campaign focused on a very middle-of-the-road message about job creation through targeted investment by state government and a strong distaste for talk of new taxes. Almost to the exclusion of any other message, Sims' campaign featured a strong appeal to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party with his proposal for an income tax. The trouncing Sims got will certainly kill that sort of talk in the immediate future.

Gregoire's spokesperson, Morton Brilliant, rejoicing at his candidate's victory party, says Gregoire surpassed all polls and expectations, giving her "incredible momentum." She will need it. He conceded there is a challenge ahead as Gregoire faces the Republicans' gubernatorial candidate, former state Sen. Dino Rossi, who had no significant opposition in his primary and is perceived to be somewhat moderate himself. "Dino Rossi is going to be a tough opponent," Brilliant says, noting that independent television advertising by Rossi supporters against Gregoire have been such blatant distortions that Comcast Cable pulled them off the air. The Gregoire campaign is clearly bracing for more of the same.

Western Washington's other high-profile race was for the open congressional seat in the 8th District, which covers most of the Eastside suburbs of King County and dips into north Pierce County. There, the results were also one-sided for well-known moderate candidates, although the snail-like ballot counting kept anyone from declaring victory.

On the Democratic side, Dave Ross' combination of crusading for common sense and being an incredibly popular KIRO-AM talk-show host helped him open a tremendous lead over his party opponents in early balloting that seems unlikely to be overcome. Ross' main opponent, Alex Alben, tried to run to Ross' left, declaring that the talk-show host is insufficiently pro-choice on abortion. But Alben trailed by more than 20 points throughout the evening in both King and Pierce counties.

On the Republican side, King County Sheriff Dave Reichert also held a 20-plus percent lead throughout the evening, despite running a confusing and clumsy campaign. Reichert has a tremendous profile from his genuine accomplishments as a law-enforcement officer, including tenacity and leadership in the successful pursuit of the Green River killer. All of that mattered much more than the difficulty he had making the transition from law enforcement to partisan politics. For instance, he refused to appear with his Republican opponents, former federal prosecutor Diane Tebelius and state Sen. Luke Esser, after they launched some standard campaign rhetoric against him.

This fall, the 8th District contest between Reichert and Ross will be fascinating to watch. Neither has a natural flair for political campaigning. While they will try to be gentlemen, the district will be flooded with attack ads from outside groups trying to win the open seat.

The heated race for attorney general has already seen attack ads alter the dynamic, and that might have led to the moderate Democratic candidate losing. Controversial advertising opposing former state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn stole the limelight in the past few days. The ads were front-page news because their backer refused to say where the money was coming from. Pressure from the state Public Disclosure Commission forced the Republican-aligned group, called the Voters Education Committee, to reveal that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had funneled $1.5 million into the ad campaign.

By the end of the evening, Senn maintained a healthy lead over rival Democrat and former Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran, although the race was too close to call. Sidran, best known for the "civility laws" he championed as city attorney, felt the ads attacking Senn, his cousin by marriage, didn't do him any favors. "For the last few days of the campaign," he says, media coverage of the ads "was the coverage of the attorney general race. It was all Deborah all the time." Sidran's attempt to stress his record of competence got lost, while Senn's image as a more-liberal and feisty populist willing to stand up to big business was enhanced. Senn's strong showing undoubtedly also reflected the name familiarity she gained from her high-profile tenure as insurance commissioner, when she became known as a dogged champion of affordable health insurance.

Rob McKenna handily won the GOP nomination for attorney general but faces the statewide name recognition of Democrat Deborah Senn in the general election.

(Kevin P. Casey)

Meanwhile, on the Republican side of the race, King County Council member Rob McKenna sailed to an easy victory over big-firm attorney Mike Vaska. Close to midnight, McKenna had 77 percent of the vote. Vaska, who had the backing of former Gov. Dan Evans, waxes bittersweet about his "special campaign," in which he tried to "restore the tradition of progressive Republicans." But as he acknowledges, McKenna was the party favorite. And the council member was far better known than Vaska, a political newbie.

A conservative, anti-tax suburbanite, McKenna has a sense of niceness and decency about him that lends him a moderate air. Bolstered by his big win, though, he was already sharpening his knives for the general election. Whether Senn or Sidran wins, he says, his arguments will remain the same. One line of attack is the allegiance both pay to Gregoire, whose record McKenna attacks, delving into her office's costly failure to file an appeal in a costly lawsuit.

In the lively nonpartisan race for superintendent of public instruction, incumbent Terry Bergeson and former Superintendent Judith Billings were running neck and neck, with Billings ever so slightly ahead of Bergeson for much of the evening. That's a terrible result for an incumbent. There were four other challengers in the race who grabbed about 30 percent of the votes by evening's end—votes that seem to signal further dissatisfaction with the status quo and could go to Billings when she and Bergeson face off in November's general election.

Billings centered her campaign on opposition to the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL, which high school students must pass to graduate, and she has clearly struck a nerve. Bergeson acknowledges as much as she looks at the votes, which she says surprise her. "I think it's less about Judi's person than about the frustration teachers are feeling," Bergeson says. "They don't like testing, they don't like No Child Left Behind," the federal act that requires schools to meet certain testing standards or face financial penalties, "and they don't like the fact that they haven't gotten a pay raise. I have to respect the strength of that."

Still, Bergeson pledges to not back down on student standards. "I'm a maniac about this stuff. It's my life. I intend to fight very hard."

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