by George Howland Jr.

With four weeks to go before the election, Democrats around the country have been riding a roller coaster of emotion about their party's prospects. Here in Washington, however, many local Democrats have been steadfastly predicting since last winter's caucuses things will go their way. Naturally, Republicans dispute their opponents' claims but, tellingly, are modest in both their ambitions and their predictions.

When it comes to politics in Washington, even Republicans admit that they start out with a basic disadvantage. GOP consultant Randy Pepple says, "It's a lean-Democratic state." Republican strategist Brett Bader concedes that "We consider ourselves underdogs statewide." Looking at who's in office bears this out: Both of state's U.S. senators are Democrats; out of nine members of the House of Representatives, only three are Republican; and out of eight partisan constitutional officers, six, including Gov. Gary Locke, are Democrats.

Washington State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance believes that's just a result of electioneering weakness in the past decade. "It's a 50/50 state," he says. "When both sides are well funded and have good candidates, it ends up a dead heat."

Yet Democrats, once again, are fielding more competitive candidates at every level this year. "We have done a better job of candidate recruitment," says Washington State Democratic Party chair Paul Berendt. "I'm a big proponent of full-court-press politics." At the congressional level, none of the six Democratic incumbents in the House -- including those in swing districts like the 2nd District's Rick Larsen of Lake Stevens and the 3rd District's Brian Baird of Vancouver -- face serious opposition. There are two open House seats -- both currently held by Republicans -- with first-tier candidates on both sides. The Democrats have found a credible challenger -- in businesswoman Sandy Matheson -- to the 4th District's Republican incumbent, Doc Hastings of Pasco. And even here in Spokane -- on the conservative side of the state -- Democrats have high hopes that Don Barbieri, the former CEO of WestCoast Hospitality, can win the 5th Congressional District seat that was long held by Democratic Speaker of the House Tom Foley.

Among the eight partisan state constitutional offices, Democrats are running hard against the two GOP incumbents -- Secretary of State Sam Reed and Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland -- while the Republicans have failed to mount challenges to the four incumbent Dems. (Naturally, both parties are fighting furiously over the open seats for governor and attorney general.) Out of 125 seats in the Legislature that are up for grabs this year, the Democrats have candidates for every one but five, while the Republicans are not contesting 17 races.

"We are not letting a single one of them have a free ride," says Berendt. By doing so, he hopes to keep the Republicans on the defensive, making them use their money and volunteers to keep what incumbents have rather than expanding their numbers among the state's elected officials.

Vance concedes that when it comes to recruiting candidates, the Democrats have an advantage. "This is an inherent problem for us," says Vance. "Most talented conservatives want to make money, not run for office." Vance says, however, that when it comes to the really important races, the GOP has great candidates. He identifies the key contests as the one for president; the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Patty Murray and her challenger, U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt of Spokane; and the open-seat governor's race between Democratic state Attorney General Christine Gregoire and former state Sen. Dino Rossi of Sammamish.

Vance is even willing to concede that the Democratic candidates in these top-of-the-ballot races are terrific. "They have a good team," says Vance. "The difference is this time so do we." In past recent elections, Vance notes, the Republican candidates for top office were not competitive.

Yet University of Washington political scientist John Gastil says, "I don't think it's conceivable the Democrats lose the presidency in Washington." Gastil adds Murray's U.S. Senate seat to the inconceivable list. Finally, he says, "It's not likely they lose the governorship."

Gastil relies on a couple of indicators to draw these conclusions. One is the result of independent polls done in Washington -- two of them conducted from Sept 17-20. One, by Stuart Elway, put Kerry at 52 percent, Bush 38 percent; Gregoire 49 percent, Rossi 38 percent; and Murray 57 percent, Nethercutt 37 percent. The second poll was by Ipsos-Public Affairs for a group of media organizations, including The News Tribune of Tacoma and The Spokesman-Review in Spokane. The Ipsos results were for only two races, finding Kerry at 51 percent, Bush 42 percent; and Gregoire 49 percent, Rossi 43 percent. The margin of error for both polls was plus or minus 5 percent.

Vance is critical of both polls, saying their sample sizes were too small to be accurate. He points to polls done by GOP firms that show the margins much closer in the presidential and senate races and dead even in the governor's race.

UW's Gastil says any poll offered up by either political party during a hotly contested election season is not credible: "They are a load of steaming horse dung," he says. The Bush campaign, Gastil says, will start to pull resources out of Washington -- essentially giving up. "They are not sure they can win it, and they are sure they don't need it," he observes. Once that happens, Gastil says, the rest of the top of the GOP ticket is weakened.

Vance says that won't happen. "Bush has been running ads here since day one. The president and the vice president have visited the state seven times. They have money and staff on the ground. They are never going to take that out of here." The Bush campaign, Vance says, has also been generously donating to the state Republican Party to help with get-out-the-vote efforts. Everyone agrees that Washington Democrats have long had an advantage when it comes to getting supporters actually to cast ballots. Republican strategist Bader says, "Democrats have an exceptionally strong ground game in this state." Vance believes this is the year that the GOP levels the playing field in terms of turnout. "I expect them to have an army on the ground, but this year so will we."

When it comes to turnout, however, the results of the primary election look ominous for the GOP. Despite months of gloom and doom from elections officials, including Republican Secretary of State Reed, the percentage of registered voters who cast ballots in the primary election was a whopping 45 percent. That's the best turnout since 1992 -- the year of a Democratic tsunami. Reed is predicting the numbers of voters in November might break state records -- as many as 85 percent of those eligible might actually cast ballots.

Democratic consultant Cathy Allen says that when there's a big turnout, younger voters and poor people are better represented at the polls. "They tend to vote Democratic," says Allen. UW's Gastil confirms half her thesis. "Lower income trends Democratic," he says.

Vance says Democrats mistakenly believe a big turnout benefits them. Instead, he contends, people who vote infrequently focus on the presidential race and go with the candidate who has momentum in the last few weeks. "They vote for the winners," says Vance. "Washington follows the national trends."

Washington voters, however, have not favored a Republican presidential candidate, regardless of whether he won the national election, since Ronald Reagan in 1984. For instance, Washington voted for former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis over the elder President Bush and picked Al Gore over W. the last time out.

Yet momentum is something the two political parties and the political scientist agree on. Any campaign in general, and this year's presidential contest in particular, with its closely divided electorate, is highly volatile. Four weeks is an eternity in politics: Anything can and has happened in final weeks of a campaign. Add in the war in Iraq, the war on terror, and the threat of attacks on American civilians and you have a process that is very unpredictable. Even so, says Democrat Berendt: "I'd rather be us than them."

Publication date: 10/07/04

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