OLYMPIA, Aug. 7.—The first showdown of Washington’s white-hot race for governor takes place today, both sides are predicting they’ll finish second, and you might think they’re playing an age-old game — to make victory seem all the sweeter when either Republican Rob McKenna or Democrat Jay Inslee emerges on top.
But when McKenna campaign manager Randy Pepple tells the story, it doesn’t sound like spin. It helps explain a campaign strategy that has flouted traditional thinking and has left insiders scratching their heads for weeks. Inslee went all-in for the primary. McKenna didn’t, and his team let Inslee’s ads go unanswered for nearly two weeks. How come?
Simple, says Pepple. McKenna can’t win. It’s also an election that doesn’t mean much. So why bother? “If I could have driven a stake through Inslee’s heart in the primary, I would have,” he said. “But I knew I couldn’t.”
It was a high-stakes decision that casts doubt on the importance of this year’s primary, an election that normally is considered a critical test for any candidate. Today is the deadline for Washington’s 3.7 million registered voters to mail in their ballots. Inslee went on the air during the 4th of July week, and has kept the barrage going a full month now. But McKenna didn’t show up on the tube until the ballots were dropped in the mail three weeks ago. The call may have boosted Inslee’s standing in polls taken during the month of July, some of which gave him the lead for the first time in this year-long race — though naturally there are partisans who think they don’t pass the straight-face test. For Inslee’s part, his campaign is predicting a second-place finish as well, but says that if the Democrat just happens to come in first — well, that would be devastating to McKenna.
It’s not that the McKenna campaign has been sitting this one out. But there is a bit of an imbalance. Campaign finance reports don’t present a complete picture, but through July 30 they show Inslee had spent $1,052,362 on TV ads; the better-financed McKenna campaign, just $788,945.
Stands Conventional Wisdom on its Head
It is a strategy that goes against the grain in this state. The Washington primary normally is seen as the first real test of a candidate’s appeal, and competitive political campaigns rarely let an opponent go unmatched. But much of the perception of its importance lingers from a kinder, gentler time. For 68 years this state used an unusual type of blanket primary in which voters could choose candidates of any party, and the top vote-getter of each party moved on to the general election – with threshold requirements that mainly affected minor parties. The primary was held seven weeks before the general election, in late September.
What it meant was that the primary offered the most complete opinion poll in the state save the general election itself. You could add the Republican votes together and the Democratic votes together and make a pretty good guess at the way things would come out. Sometimes you had only one Democrat and one Republican in the running, so no adding was required. The results usually skewed a point or so to the right, because only the most dedicated voters trooped to the polling place to cast ballots in an election that served merely to narrow the field. Primary voters tended to be slightly more conservative than those in the general election. Still you could read the numbers and make a pretty accurate guess about which candidates stood a fighting chance.
The thing is, the old way died in 2004, after litigation by political parties, and big changes have taken place since. Today Washington uses a top-two system, in which the top-two vote-getters advance to the general election ballot, regardless of party. Today all voting is by mail — no special trip to the polls is required. And this year, because of new federal rules that impose early deadlines for military absentee ballots, Washington is holding an abnormally early primary. It comes at a time when people are thinking more about barbecues than about politics, meaning that participation is likely to be among the lowest in state history – perhaps half what it will be in the general election. The secretary of state’s office predicted 46 percent, but early voting is trending below expectations.
The primary just isn’t the important yardstick it used to be, Pepple argues, and when he saw how the race was shaping up, the decision was a no-brainer.
The Hadian Effect
On the Republican side, there are four candidates for governor. Neither Max Sampson nor Javier Lopez have done much campaigning, but normally even a candidate who doesn’t lift a finger can count on getting about 0.4 percent of the vote, Pepple says. Shahram Hadian is a different matter. The Everett pastor has raised $105,000 and has been stumping the state, making an appeal for Washington’s most conservative voters with an anti-abortion, anti-health-care reform, God-and-country platform. It’s a pitch that may be good for about 5 to 8 percent of the vote, or perhaps even more. In 2010, conservative Clint Didier got 12.76 percent with a similar platform in the race for U.S. Senate, despite the candidacy of better-known Republican Dino Rossi. A dedicated Facebook following and signs along the state’s highways attest to Hadian’s appeal, and perhaps most important, Hadian got the endorsement of the Human Life PAC.
“The reason I didn’t start my buy when Jay did and didn’t do the size of the buy Jay did was that I knew [McKenna] couldn’t win the primary,” Pepple says. “Once Shahram filed and once June rolled around, and he got the endorsement of Human Life, I knew we couldn’t finish first. So if we can’t finish first, I’m going to save that resource for [the general election], when the last 15 to 20 percent that are undecided are still deciding.”
Here’s his guess. Participation in the primary will skew 53-47 to the Ds. That’s because the biggest action in the primary is on the Democratic side, in races like the 1st Congressional District and a handful of hotly contested Seattle legislative races. So McKenna may be held to between 39 and 42 percent and Inslee may wind up with 45 to 48 percent. And yet, given the low participation in the primary, it really won’t mean a thing. The main effect of Inslee’s big ad buy will be to leave him with less money after the primary, Pepple says, and after the primary money will be harder to raise. Contributions are limited to $1,800 an election — and so far big contributors have been able to put up a maximum $3,600. But that will be cut in half after today. “Our charge is to be in the top two, and to be in the top two with more money in the bank,” Pepple says. “I like that position, and half the electorate is still to decide what they are going to do. And of that last half of the electorate that is going to turn out, 15 or 20 percent of them still don’t have a position in the race.”
Dems Say Primary Important
The view from the Democratic side, of course, is that the primary really does matter. That’s because the Dems maintain the primary always skews right, even today. “If Jay wins the primary, which we don’t expect, because the primary electorate is so different from the general, it would mean disaster for McKenna,” says Inslee spokesman Jaime Smith. “It would mean we’re winning among the most conservative voters.”
These days, of course, with the old rules gone out the window, it’s a little dangerous to draw conclusions based on assumptions of yore. What’s the basis for the claim that current primaries draw a more conservative voter? The Inslee campaign points out that in the 2010 Senate primary, a statewide race, the total Republican vote was seven-tenths of a percent higher than the total Democratic vote, and yet Democrat Patty Murray won the general election 52-48. True enough. But the contest on the Republican side was the hottest thing going in the primary that year; there were no other statewide races. The Inslee campaign also cites two recent examples of Democrats who finished second in the primary and came back to win in the general – Treasurer Jim McIntire in 2008 and Congressman Rick Larsen in 2010 – but in both cases the total Democratic vote in the primary was over 50 percent.
Perhaps more important, the Inslee campaign points out that in 2008, the Obama campaign drew hordes of younger voters to the polls for the general election. Among voters 25-34 the Inslee campaign says participation quadrupled between the primary and the general, and these are voters “who we know from our polling support Obama and who share Jay’s issue profile on choice, the environment, marriage equality, etc., in much higher proportions.”
Of course, that raises a question the pundits back in D.C. have been asking for a year – can Obama do it again? And Pepple disputes the idea that in the modern era, the primary automatically favors the Republican. Take that same election. In 2008, McKenna beat Democrat John Ladenburg in the primary 57-43 – and then managed to increase his score in the general election by 2.5 points. Safe to say anyone who tries to extrapolate primary results to the general election is going to have to do some mighty complicated work with a calculator to figure out which way the primary voters leaned, and where those votes came from.
But even if the primary results don’t predict much about the general election, a first-place finish for Inslee will be a psychological boost for a campaign that just a few months ago seemed to be flagging. Political consultant Paul Berendt, a former state Democratic chairman, says the McKenna strategy still seems screwy to him. Obviously Inslee had to introduce himself to voters, but to let ads go unanswered for such a long time? The primary result “doesn’t count too much, really, for November, I don’t discount that. But I will tell you something. The people who write the checks, they watch this, and if Jay is ahead in the primary, he is going to get a big infusion of support from people who have been sitting on their hands on the sidelines. That’s what matters in the primary. It’s not that it’s necessarily a preview of what happens in November, but it does make a difference to the gaggle of check-writers and insiders.”