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August 19, 2008

Whither Washington?

The presidential primary held in late February had a draw, as almost 1.4 million Washingtonians cast votes. Today, when voters head to the polls to select nominees for state and federal offices, Washingtonians have little reason to head to the polls beyond a contested race for State Treasurer.

Still, Secretary of State Sam Reed told the Seattle Times he expects 46% of the state's registered voters, or about 1.5 million people, to turn out. Experts from both parties caution against reading too much into the results, and both parties are playing down their chances for success compared with their chief rivals in the primary.

The reason comparisons might matter this time around: Washington's new primary system, in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election. That means voters can choose either Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire or her Republican rival, former State Senator Dino Rossi, on today's ballot, along with a handful of other candidates.

So, should one read into primary results? The Republican Governors Association says no, arguing that the GOP underperforms in state primaries and pointing to the 34% of the vote Rossi got in the 2004 primary, two months before coming 130 votes away from winning the general.

So do some Democrats, who caution against reading too much into results in a competitive Congressional election in the state's Eighth District. In that suburban Seattle district, which has never elected a Democrat, Rep. Dave Reichert faces another tough challenge from businesswoman Darcy Burner, who came within just a few points of beating him in 2006. Democratic strategists say they expect Reichert to win the most votes in the primary by a small margin.

But is either party telling the whole story? Rossi got just over a third of the vote in 2004 thanks to a competitive Democratic primary in which Gregoire beat King County Executive Ron Sims. Gregoire won easily, but the fact that she had a credible opponent drove up turnout, especially in Democratic-heavy King and Thurston Counties, Sims' and Gregoire's respective bases.

And what would it say if Burner gets fewer votes than Reichert today, two years after she actually won more votes in the primary then lost by a narrow 7,000-vote margin? In fact, if Reichert wins more votes than Burner this year, it will be the first time the two-term Republican has gotten the most votes in a primary; he trailed his 2004 Democratic opponent by a wide margin as well, when both parties featured competitive primaries.

Reporters are hearing similar downplays from both Rossi's and Gregoire's campaigns. The truth is, thanks to Washington's new primary system (This is the first election to be run under the new "top two" method), political professionals don't know what to think about today's results.