Dino Rossi is used to this.
His first run for governor in 2004 ended not on election night, but after months of waiting. What looked like a narrow victory over Chris Gregoire after the first count of ballots evaporated during two recounts and a court challenge. He lost by 133 votes.
This could be another nailbiter.
Rossi, now Republicans’ standard-bearer in a nationally watched Senate race, was left to hope that later returns would be kinder to him, as Sen. Patty Murray took a narrow lead Tuesday in her bid for a fourth term.
Never miss a local story.
“It’s Washington state, what are you going to do?” he told a crowd of Republicans in Bellevue. “You know how this works.”
Murray led by a large margin in King County, the state’s largest, and by a smaller margin in Snohomish County. She and Rossi were roughly even in the night’s returns from Pierce County.
“We are winning tonight, and we are going to win even bigger tomorrow,” Murray told supporters in Seattle, The Associated Press reported.
Snohomish and Pierce counties are bellwethers that could be key to the race’s outcome. Rossi lost both in the gubernatorial rematch in 2008, after winning them in 2004.
“There’s a lot of ballots to be counted,” state Democratic Party chairman Dwight Pelz said. “We think a lot of them are from King, Pierce and Snohomish counties where (Murray is) doing strong.”
But his counterpart in the state Republican Party, chairman Luke Esser, said ballot counting over the next “days or weeks” could turn out differently.
“In the primary he gained late,” Esser said, “so we still think there’s a chance he can win those counties.”
Pierce County Democratic chairman Nathe Lawver said Democrats seemed to be holding on to their ballots longer than they did in the primary.
The uncertain outcome will leave political junkies all over the country watching Washington state, but it lost some luster nationally as Democrats appeared headed toward maintaining their control of the U.S. Senate.
The national significance is the reason the race saw a barrage of spending by outside groups. Every time they turned on a television or checked their mailbox, voters saw fresh evidence of what ended up being nearly $20 million in independent spending.
The ads came from both political parties, from interest groups and from organizations that to an unprecedented extent were able to spend money on the race without revealing their contributors.
A loss by Murray would end the 18-year Senate career of a suburban former preschool teacher who campaigned as a “mom in tennis shoes,” then rose to the No. 4 spot on Senate Democrats’ leadership team.
Murray backed the signature legislation passed by Democrats during their short two years in control of the White House and both houses of Congress that ended Tuesday: the health care overhaul, the economic stimulus, and tighter rules for Wall Street.
Those new rules followed a bipartisan bailout of banks during the Bush administration, which she also backed.
Murray became an expert at bringing money home to Washington state. On the campaign trail, she touted what her clout could do: win stimulus money to clean up the contaminated Hanford nuclear reservation, secure funding for Washington ferries, and stop the closure of veterans’ clinics in Lakewood, Vancouver and Walla Walla.
This year, however, voters weren’t all in the mood to hear talk about how federal spending had benefited them. Worries about debt, spending and taxes – stoked by conservative tea parties – helped define the midterm election.
The election was in some ways made to order for Rossi. He campaigned this year, much as he has in two failed gubernatorial campaigns, as a fiscal conservative averse to taxes and government spending and regulation.
Unlike his previous tries at statewide office, Rossi wasn’t handicapped by the dynamics of a presidential race. He won more votes than President George W. Bush in 2004 and Sen. John McCain in 2008, but still not enough to win the governor’s race those years.
This time, an unyielding economic downturn combined with the usual reversals for a president’s party during midterm elections to create an expectation for Republican gains.
A national wave similar to 1994 – the last time Washington voted for a GOP senator – seemed likely long before Rossi entered the race in May at the urging of national Republicans.
Rossi, a real estate investor, is best known – other than spending much of the past seven years running for office – for his work on a state budget. Ever since working with then-Democratic Gov. Gary Locke and other Olympia politicians in 2003 to bridge a deficit with budget cuts and largely avoid raising taxes, he has touted his fiscal know-how and willingness to work across the aisle as credentials for higher office.
Turning to federal issues in this race, he hammered Murray on her reputation as a master of earmarks, saying he wouldn’t seek them if elected.
His approach was straight out of the GOP playbook for the year: He fretted about passing on the national debt to future generations, pointed to examples of what he said are waste in projects funded by the stimulus, and derided Democrats’ signature domestic accomplishment, a major step toward universal health insurance, as a costly mistake.
Murray, for her part, tried to tie Rossi to Wall Street, pointing to his support for repealing new rules for banks, his fundraising from the financial industry, even his part ownership in a troubled bank, even though he was one of dozens of investors who founded it and didn’t manage the bank’s operations.
It was part of an attempt by Murray’s campaign and Democrats to focus on Rossi’s business dealings, including with statehouse lobbyists in Olympia. Rossi slammed Murray for her own ties to the influence industry, including earmarks she secured for the clients of former staffers turned lobbyists. She said the projects were decided on their merits.
While establishment candidates in other parts of the country faced conservative insurrections, Rossi easily dispatched a tea party candidate, Clint Didier, in Washington’s unique top-two primary election.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826