The history books report that Washington state has not elected a Republican governor since 1980. Scores of GOP voters in the state insist otherwise. Four years ago, Republican Dino Rossi appeared to capture victory by 261 votes when the last of nearly 3 million ballots were tabulated two weeks after election night. An automatic machine recount confirmed the upset win, this time by a mere 42 votes.
But supporters of Democratic candidate Christine Gregoire refused to accept that result. The state's Democratic Party footed the $730,000 bill required for a manual recount. And this time, the numbers turned blue, handing Gregoire a 129-vote edge that was later adjusted to 133 following months of legal challenge that included allegations of voter fraud.
The ultimate result of that bitter struggle left some state Republicans despairing. Others began plotting immediately for another fierce tussle in 2008.
Now just weeks away, that long anticipated rematch highlights a field of 10 other gubernatorial races around the country, most of which pale in drama or intrigue. In a year expected to yield dramatic change across the American political landscape, eight of the contested gubernatorial seats appear locked in status quo. Two others, in Missouri and North Carolina (see sidebars), lack incumbents. Only in Washington does a sitting governor face significant challenge-surprising perhaps, given this year's broad expectation for incumbent Democrats to hold serve.
The reasons for Gregoire's vulnerability are myriad, stretching far beyond the determination of a highly motivated Republican Party. She has overseen an $8 billion increase in spending that included hiring 8,000 new state employees and pouring $4 billion into public education-expenditures contributing to the $3.2 billion shortfall lawmakers expect to face in January when they meet to set a new two-year budget.
Fiscal concerns were already the central issue of the campaign prior to the recent economic unrest that has swept the nation. Such matters only increased in import with the collapse of Washington Mutual Savings Bank, a 119-year-old homegrown institution that fell to pieces last month when crashing stock prices caused customers to pull out $16.7 billion in 10 days.
A front-row seat for the largest bank failure in the country's history might well inspire new appreciation among Washington voters for fiscal restraint and responsibility. Indeed, the recent economic turmoil has pressed Gregoire to impose a government freeze on hiring, equipment purchases, and interstate travel, measures meant to save about $90 million. But she is reluctant to announce plans for more dramatic cuts next January, likely wary of upsetting various Democratic constituent groups.
Meanwhile, the Rossi campaign is rushing to point out that its candidate has a history of advocating spending cuts and balancing budgets. In 2003, while chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in the state Senate, he spearheaded a successful effort to close a budget gap near $3 billion. Rossi hopes voters will trust that record. He, like Gregoire, is squeamish about announcing specific budget cuts in the homestretch of a tight race.
Neither candidate has managed to open up a significant lead at any point during the contest, Gregoire holding a slim advantage for much of the year before Rossi edged ahead last month. All polls point to a potential repeat of the narrow margin that decided the 2004 race.
But state Republicans do not anticipate a repeat of 2004's voter discrepancies, which led to accusations that dead people, felons, non-citizens, and other illegal voters may have determined the result. In the wake of last cycle's litigation, which stretched into June 2005 and ended with Judge John Bridges ruling against Republicans, Secretary of State Sam Reed instituted sweeping election reforms to clean up the process and restore voter confidence.
"We'll be closely watching the scene to do the best we can to make sure the mistakes of 2004 are not revisited in 2008," said Luke Esser, chairman of the state Republican Party. "There have been improvements, but there are still problems."
Esser cites the removal of almost 500,000 improperly registered voters from the rolls as a step in the right direction, but he and other Republicans are disappointed that voters still need not present picture identification at the polls. Democrats in the legislature have blocked that measure in the name of preventing voter disenfranchisement, a position common to Democrats and minority-rights groups nationwide.
With so many eyes trained on Washington's electoral process this year, fraud is not likely to prove the prevailing story. Like most elections throughout the country, the Evergreen State's gubernatorial race is apt to turn on which candidate most embodies a new direction. Accordingly, Gregoire has spent much of her advertising dollars and campaign energy attacking a man who lives in the other Washington-D.C.
While Republicans blame Gregoire for the state's projected budget shortfall, she blames George W. Bush, suggesting that a drop-off in tax revenue has resulted from disastrous national economic policy: "This is the worst economic situation we've faced since the Depression. We're going to blame that on the Washington state legislature and the governor?"
In radio commercials, Gregoire has made similar attempts to run against Bush rather than Rossi. The text of one particular ad repeats the refrain "just like George Bush" four times in characterizing Rossi's positions. Another ad refers to the "Bush/Rossi plan" on the economy.
In an apparent effort to combat that association, Rossi has moderated his public statements on lightning-rod issues. His campaign website emphasizes fiscal responsibility, offers some common ground positions "for those concerned about climate change," and does not prominently feature his socially conservative views on abortion or gay marriage.
Democrats believe the Republican nominee is even trying to shuck his party affiliation. Rossi chose the longtime party nickname GOP to accompany his name on the official ballot, a decision Democrats challenged in court. Upon losing that challenge, Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz called the GOP moniker a "confusing and deceptive ballot title" and cited private polling data showing more favorable results for Rossi when thus identified.
Hardly indicative of paranoia, all concerns over ballot minutia hold water in a contest once determined by 133 votes.
North Carolina: Pat McCrory (R) vs. Beverly Perdue (D)
Employing the rhetoric of change is no easy task for North Carolina gubernatorial candidate Beverly Perdue. The Democratic lieutenant governor maintains close ties to popular term-limited Gov. Mike Easley, a connection that could work in her favor given Easley's dominance in the past two election cycles. But poll numbers indicate a much tighter race this time, as Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory argues that Republicans will bring change.
McCrory proposes significant shifts in education, energy development, and health care. He favors a voucher program, supports drilling for oil off the North Carolina coast, and promises to repeal costly reforms to the state's mental health system implemented under Easley. By necessity, Perdue's calls for change must walk a finer line, avoiding criticism of the current administration. Nevertheless, the Democratic candidate's website oozes talk of change, going so far as to villianize her opponent for his "stand-patter" positions.
Advantage: Dead heat
Missouri: Jay Nixon (D) vs. Kenny Hulshof (R)
Barring a disastrous misstep over the final weeks of the campaign, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon appears likely to grab back the governor's seat from four years of Republican control. Since the announcement from incumbent Matt Blunt early this year that he would not seek reelection, Nixon has occupied the frontrunner role with far less difficulty than many anticipated. U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, the victor of a close Republican primary, has failed to pull within single digits of his Democratic rival in any statewide polls, despite his deep political connections as a six-term congressman.
Nixon's populist message and background as a consumer advocate have helped him curry support from Democrats and Republicans alike. As attorney general, he oversaw the implementation of a tough no-call program, which protects more than half of the state's population from telemarketing calls. Hulshof's message of fiscal and social conservatism has yet to gain traction.