Deciphering the Wash. gubernatorial primary

OLYMPIA — What happens when you have an open primary election and less than half of the voters show up?

You end up with results in a hotly contested governor’s race that everyone wants to dissect for clues about what will happen come November and the expected larger turnout.

With about a million votes counted so far, Democratic former U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee edged Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna, 47 to 43 percent, in Tuesday night’s primary.

The sole purpose of the state’s “top two” primary is to winnow down the candidates, regardless of party. McKenna and Inslee easily advanced to the general ballot.

While the public isn’t paying attention yet — at least not enough to send in primary ballots, anyway — Tuesday’s results are the latest rough poll in what is expected to be one of the nation’s most competitive governor’s races.

Here’s a breakdown of key numbers, all of which could vary slightly as votes continue to be counted:

• Turnout: Secretary of State Sam Reed originally predicted a 46 percent voter turnout by the state’s 3.7 million voters in the completely vote-by-mail election. Spokesman David Ammons said it’s likely to be closer to 40 percent once all the mailed ballots, which are still arriving, are counted. Voter turnout in November is expected to be at least double that, considering that turnout in the 2008 election was 85 percent.

• Counties won: McKenna, 29 (including all of Eastern Washington); Inslee, 10 (including voter-rich King County). This could shift by a county or two as votes continue to be counted.

• Democratic vs. Republican vote when the two Democratic and four Republican gubernatorial candidates are combined: just over 50 percent Democrat, about 47 percent Republican. Two independents and another no party preference candidate collectively won close to 3 percent.

• In seven other statewide races, including U.S. Senate, secretary of state and auditor, the Republican vote never breaks 50 percent (either singularly or combined on more crowded ballots), ranging from nearly 40 percent to 48 percent.

• In all-important King County, which holds about a third of the state’s voters, Inslee captured 59 percent of the vote, compared to McKenna’s 35 percent. The combined Republican vote for King County was about 37 percent.

What does all of this mean? It depends on who you ask and which prior race you want to reference.

For example, in the 2008 primary, Republican Dino Rossi had 46.4 percent of the overall vote, (the combined Republican candidate vote in that race was 48 percent), and in King County, Rossi captured nearly 36 percent of the vote. Rossi ultimately lost to Gov. Chris Gregoire in the general election by six points.

But in 1980, the last time the state elected a Republican as governor, the combined Republican vote in that primary was just 41 percent, and the ultimate winner, John Spellman, had a mere 17 percent out of a crowded ballot that had 14 candidates. He went on to defeat Democrat Jim McDermott by 13 points in the general election.

Since then, the Republican vote in the gubernatorial primary has ranged from 27 percent to 57 percent, with an ultimate Democratic win in the general.

Independent pollster Stuart Elway said that at the end of the day, primaries “don’t tell you much, if anything, about the general.”

“Candidates and campaigns do matter,” he said. “It’s not just math.”

But Elway said that McKenna, seen as the GOP’s strongest candidate at the top of the ticket in years, still faces hurdles because of Washington’s Democratic-leaning electorate that has elected Democratic governors since 1984. A recent Elway poll showed 35 percent of respondents identify as Democrat, 27 percent as Republican and 38 percent as independent.

“The odds for McKenna, even though he’s been the front runner for a year and has been elected as AG twice, have always been stacked against him, just from history and party identification,” he said.

McKenna campaign spokesman Charles McCray said he wasn’t surprised by the primary results, and that the campaign will continue fighting for the support of independent voters who likely didn’t participate in the primary because they’re still assessing their choices.

“I don’t believe in there being a ceiling that the Republicans cannot overcome,” he said.

McKenna and Inslee have been campaigning since last summer, around the same time Gregoire announced she wouldn’t seek a third term. Two recent polls, including one by Elway, showed Inslee taking a lead over McKenna for the first time in the campaign.

Christian Sinderman, a Democratic strategist involved in several campaigns in the state, including the governor’s race, said that the “primary punctured the bubble that Rob McKenna was some kind of juggernaut electorally.”

Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said that while the numbers have given the campaign a boost of confidence, there’s still nearly three months left in the campaign. “We’re not taking anything for granted,” she said.

Chris Vance, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, said that even though the primary is only a snapshot of where the electorate is right now, he thinks the numbers should still be of concern to Republicans.

“It’s no time for panic,” he said, but, “It’s going to be a very competitive race.”