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August 18, 2010 at 3:40 PM

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What do primary totals say about Murray-Rossi Senate race?

Posted by Jim Brunner

As of Wednesday morning, incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray came in first in the top-two primary, with 46 percent. Republican Dino Rossi had 34 percent, while fellow Republicans Clint Didier and Paul Akers took 12 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

Less than 50 percent for an incumbent is never a good sign. So is Murray in trouble?

A few points to keep in mind:

Ignore the partisan expectation games.

Some of the pre-primary spinning was silly.

Democrats wanted to set artificially high expectations for Rossi so he'd appear weak when he failed to hit the target.

On Monday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sent a memo suggesting Rossi would be in trouble if he got anything less than 46.35 percent of the vote -- because that's what he received in a 10-person gubernatorial primary in 2008.

But Rossi faced no significant Republican opposition that year. Anyone remember John W. Aiken, Jr.? Me either.

This time, Rossi did face some notable Republican opposition, mainly Clint Didier.

Murray's numbers are worse than six years ago.

Murray's Tuesday totals were dismal compared with 2004, when she took 54 percent of the statewide vote in the primary. She went on to easily defeat George Nethercutt that November.

Yet some were surprised she didn't fare worse in a primary where Republicans had more reason to turn out than Democrats.

"Obviously she looks vulnerable," said Todd Donovan, political science professor at Western Washington University, in an e-mail.

But Donovan was surprised the combined Republican vote wasn't higher given the national trends.

Adding Rossi's Tuesday totals to Didier and Akers, you can see a Republican vote nearing 50 percent.

"There is evidence in the early results that suggests Republican voters were mobilized. It's odd that didn't help Rossi and Republican Senate candidates more," he said.

What about King County?

Conventional wisdom says Murray needs to run extremely well in King County to offset the more conservative votes in the rest of the state.

As of this morning, Murray had received 58 percent of the King County vote, compared to 28 percent for Rossi.

That was substantially lower than in 2004, when she scored 65 percent of the King County vote in the primary, to Nethercutt's 25 percent.

It's hard to say what that means. The primary system was different back then, with separate partisan ballots instead of the wide-open "top two" scheme we have now. There was also a contested Democratic primary that year in the governor's race, with then-King County Executive Ron Sims losing to Christine Gregoire, then state attorney general.

At least 80,000 more King County ballots are expected to be counted today. I'll be interested to see if those push Murray further toward -- or away -- from the 50 percent mark.

Murray came back from a poor primary performance in 1998

Hotline, the national political site, noted earlier this month that Murray "surely hopes her current race runs much like her 1998 one did."

"To be sure, there were some warning signs for her in Sept. of that year. In the '98 primary, she won just 45.9% of the vote, and the total Dem vote was only 48.4%. Meanwhile, four GOPers garnered a net 50.3%, with most of that split between then-Rep. Linda Smith (32.3%) and multimillionaire/ex-King Co. prosecutor Chris Bayley (14.9%). Nevertheless, come Election Day '98, Murray trounced Smith 58.4%-41.6%, representing a +10% swing in the net Dem vote and a -8.7% loss on the GOP side after just two months."

But this morning, Hotline was quick to note that Murray's vulnerability this year is one of the big surprises for Democrats.

"Murray, who was considered one of the safest Dems in the country at the beginning of the cycle, is in trouble. As we noted in the Starting Lineup today, a good sign of the Dem concern is Pres. Obama taking it to Rossi yesterday. This race is going to be aggressive and expensive."

Maybe the primary predicts nothing at all about November

Washington pollster Stuart Elway says it's a mistake to read anything into the primary results, beyond deciding who gets to face off in November. His analysis:

Although it is tempting to read omens into the Primary results, and Lord knows everyone will be spinning them, the Primary election is not a reliable predictor of the General Election. The main reason is that the two electorates are different. Primary voters tend to be older, more established (homeowners, parents), and more partisan than people who vote only in a General Election.

As of this writing, voter turnout for the Primary was only 27%. It will end up a little higher. Turnout in the General is likely to be at least twice that. The doubling of the size of the electorate, and the different characteristics of the voters who skipped the Primary but who will vote in the General, renders Primary results unreliable as an indicator of the General election.

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.