Ok, it ain't over until the fat lady counts the last provisional ballot. But when it comes to moral victories, Christine Gregoire is already a loser.
The simple fact is, this race never, ever should have been this close. There is no excuse for an outcome in which voters went into the booth and voted for John Kerry, Patty Murray, and Dino Rossi. There is no excuse for spending critical campaign time on a rural road in the Yakima Valley when your urban, Democratic, Puget Sound base—counties like Snohomish and Pierce—aren't secured. There's no excuse for running without a simple, coherent message. There's no excuse for poorly produced TV ads in which a raccoon-eyed candidate convinces viewers that she stands for absolutely nothing. Even Patty Murray's "Harry and David" campaign—in which there was no photo of the Mom in Tennis Shoes in which she was not shown fondling a basket of Red Delicious apples—seemed substantive by comparison. Out-substanced by Patty and Dino? Lordy. Gregoire lost to Rossi by 42 votes (as of this writing); she'd have lost to J.P. Patches in an epic landslide.
Oh, the humanity. Gregoire lost the battle of Armageddon by being outmaneuvered by state Republican Party Chair Chris Vance, who cynically and openly adopted the tactic of appearing to run GOP "moderates" for top offices. He recognized that running divisive conservatives like KVI-AM talk-show host John Carlson and right-wing cranks like Ellen Craswell was a nonstarter. He took advantage of the fact that the bar was set so low for the GOP that he could adopt the Karl Rove approach of running very conservative candidates who seem moderate by dint of personality and who were coached to frame the debate to avoid discussing "divisive" issues. Rossi's campaign mailings showed a good-looking suburban dad who seemed to spend 90 percent of his time playing with his kids. They turned Rossi's apparent parenting skills into an advantage over Gregoire's experience. Yeah, Gregoire actually knows stuff. She must be one of those evil insiders!
Even so, it's not Rossi's fault that Gregoire didn't define herself, or define him, earlier and better. She let Rossi become the outsider while she claimed the mantle of "more of the same." Ugh.
The attorney general has every legal right to pay for a hand recount in the governor's race, but she's got big problems, whatever the outcome. If she pays for a statewide or partial recount and it overturns the present result, the election will be challenged in court and precipitate yet another recount. The Democrats will be accused of stealing the election. If she accepts the current outcome— defeat—her elective career is over. If she recounts and loses, her career is over and she's wasted $1 million of Democratic cash.
One almost certain legacy is that her campaign's incompetence has jeopardized other Democrats by validating the GOP strategy: U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is in serious trouble in 2006 if she draws a Republican opponent who can match her money and her centrism and has a campaign message that connects with voters. The wonkish Cantwell, like Gregoire, is vulnerable as a smart insider who loves policy details but has little ability to paint the big picture for the folks back home. It's one reason she lost her House seat to another faux GOP moderate, Rick White, in 1994. And there might be sexism at work, too: The GOP has discovered that tough ladies are vulnerable to soft soccer dads.
So if you want to save your seat, Maria, ask Santa for a subscription to the Fruit-of-the-Month Club.
One of the bright spots in the election for Democrats has to be the King County election-precinct map that The Seattle Times published Monday, Nov. 29. When it comes to how the county voted for John Kerry, you can color us the Deep Blue Sea. Kerry not only won in the city of Seattle, he swept most of the suburbs, including the onetime GOP stronghold of the Eastside.
But this also raises an important issue for Washington Democrats. That is, while the Seattle metro area is trending more liberal, suburbanites are still prone to ticket splitting. Indeed, while the city of Seattle is blue from tips to roots, the suburbs are still mostly red at the roots. The majority of Eastside legislators are still Republican, despite the fact that Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Kerry all carried the area.
Successful suburban Democrats, who have helped the party take control of both houses in Olympia this year with key wins, are more moderate than those in the party's Seattle power base. And by more moderate, I mean pro-business and more focused on issues of importance to people with kids. They also have less of a moral superiority complex. They tend to come from PTSAs and chambers of commerce and reflect nonpartisan, pothole politics. In many respects, they're interchangeable with their GOP counterparts, except on abortion and, perhaps, environmental issues.
The point is that angry Seattle Democrats, frustrated with Kerry's loss and Gregoire's performance and feeling as if they reside on some kind of remote island of sanity in the national red sea, should take heart from the suburban trend and realize they have many potential allies out there. But the Dems will need to better organize their suburban ground game and develop a deeper bench for the conversion from red to blue to be lasting and substantial. They cannot take the "blue-ing" of the burbs for granted, as the Gregoire debacle reminds us.