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Sunday, November 4, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 p.m.
Inslee, McKenna chart divergent paths to ensure ballots are sent
By Jim Brunner
Seattle Times political reporter
The debates are done. The negative ads have nearly run their course. Most voters have made up their minds.
All that remains for Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna in the waning days of Washington's nationally watched gubernatorial race is to close the deal and ensure supporters actually send in their ballots.
Over the past week, the rivals have traveled the state to pump up volunteers with the message that every vote matters in the close-fought race. Their divergent get-out-the-vote tour itineraries say a lot about where the two campaigns are counting on for support.
McKenna, the two-term attorney general from Bellevue, has rolled across most of the state with a 29-city "RV tour," spending much of the week in Republican-leaning areas of Eastern and Central Washington.
Inslee, the former eight-term congressman from Bainbridge Island, has hewed close to his urban Puget Sound base, making no campaign appearances east of the Cascades since an Oct. 17 event in Spokane.
Recent polling has shown the race a virtual dead heat, with Inslee clinging to a small advantage and McKenna closing the gap lately. But Republicans and Democratic strategists agree either candidate could wind up the winner next week. And so Inslee and McKenna are mustering an army of volunteers and working hard to ensure they leave no votes on the table.
Inslee's last-minute campaigning reinforced the message he's part of a state and national Democratic team that starts with President Obama.
At a rally in the lobby of a Bremerton architectural firm last week, Inslee shared a stage with U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, retiring U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks and others.
After saluting Dicks, the 30-year dean of Washington's congressional delegation, Inslee led off with a joking explanation for why the Democrats' "Jobs for Washington" tour bus arrived late.
"We were coming down the highway from Poulsbo, and it was the strangest thing," Inslee said. "There was a bus in the fast lane of the freeway going north in the southbound lanes, going backwards 35 miles an hour ... and as we went by, I looked on it and it said Rob McKenna's New Direction Backwards."
Amid cheers from the crowd of more than 100, Inslee called the contest "a battle for the heart and soul" of the state. At stake, he suggested, were years of Democratic Party gains on issues from environmental protection to health care.
"This is a race where the people in this room could make a difference of who is going to be the next governor of the state of Washington," Inslee said. "You stand up for me and with me in the next seven days, and I'll give you four years of a forward-looking governor."
That same evening in Yakima, McKenna stepped off his "Rob Victory Tour" motor home and spoke to about three dozen supporters in a small room at the local GOP headquarters. As he mostly has throughout the campaign, McKenna framed the governor's race as an isolated contest and didn't mention Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Like Inslee, McKenna pressed his supporters to do everything they could to get out the vote.
"This is going to be an election that's decided by turnout. They're working really hard to turn out votes on Capitol Hill, in Fremont and downtown Seattle. And we're working even harder to turn out votes throughout Eastern Washington, Southwest Washington, the Olympic Peninsula, Pierce County — you name it," McKenna said.
McKenna vowed to work across the aisle if elected, and he bristled at the Democratic Party's efforts to paint him alternately as a backward-looking right-winger or a corrupt Olympia insider.
"They can't win based on my actual record, my actual plans," McKenna said in an interview after the event. "So they have to sell voters a fake version of the truth. It's very Orwellian, actually."
Recent history is clearly on the Democrats' side — they've won every governor's race in Washington since 1984. The Republican drought in gubernatorial contests is the longest for the party anywhere in the country.
But the Republican Governors Association sees the Washington state race as one of the GOP's best shots nationally at picking up a Democratic governorship.
Both Inslee and McKenna have some reasons to be confident in — or to fear — the voters' verdict after the ballots are counted Nov. 6.
For Inslee, a bright spot has emerged in early vote returns. In two recent polls, voters who said they'd already sent in ballots indicated they favored Inslee.
"What they (Democrats) need to make sure of is that they sustain that momentum," said Matt Barreto, a political-science professor at the University of Washington. The KCTS 9 Washington Poll run by Barreto found Inslee with 51 percent of the vote among people who'd already voted, compared with 48 percent for McKenna.
Republicans acknowledged the early-vote deficit but said they're confident McKenna will close the gap.
McKenna, too, had reason for optimism in Barreto's poll, which showed the Republican up by 20 points among independents. With more self-identified Democrats in the state than Republicans, McKenna needs independent votes to win.
As the race ticked into its final days, the campaigns increasingly have shifted their focus to their own bases.
"You spend months and millions of dollars talking to an ever-shrinking sector of undecided voters," said Democratic political consultant Christian Sinderman, who is working with the Inslee campaign. "At some point you have to turn to making sure your own people are sending in their ballots."
Washington's all-mail election in 2012 — the first in a presidential year — gives parties even more ability to track which voters have cast ballots and target those who have not. Right up through election night, thousands of volunteers for each party will be working phone banks and even setting up extra ballot-drop sites.
Pointing to their winning record in recent decades, Democrats boast of a superior get-out-the-vote ground game.
Sterling Clifford, an Inslee campaign spokesman, said that as of the middle of last week Democrats had made more than 3 million calls and knocked on 1 million doors.
The Inslee voter-outreach effort has an advantage over the McKenna side in being aided by the Democrats' "coordinated campaign" that has 25 offices across the state working to drive up turnout for President Obama and other Democratic candidates.
But Republicans say they've mustered their best voter-outreach effort yet and are confident they can match the Democratic ground game. McKenna said campaign volunteers blew through the goal of reaching 1 million voters by early last week and were continuing their outreach.
In 2004, Republican candidate Dino Rossi came within 133 votes of beating Democrat Chris Gregoire, only losing after two recounts and a lawsuit.
Chris Vance, who was state Republican chairman, noted Rossi was at the time a little-known state senator who'd entered the race late and didn't campaign enough in Eastern Washington.
The McKenna campaign has a much more robust get-out-the-vote machine that has spent plenty of time all over the state, he said.
"The Rossi campaign was a rowboat compared to the McKenna aircraft carrier," Vance said. "McKenna has had the money, the resources, plus he's been elected statewide twice."
While the McKenna campaign has spent a lot of time ensuring McKenna grabs every last vote in Republican areas, the race is still likely to come down to Democratic-leaning King County, where roughly a third of the state's voters reside.
Republicans acknowledge McKenna likely needs to capture about 40 percent or more of the King County vote to win.
Democrats are laying much hope on high turnout statewide, boosting their totals with younger, poorer voters who tend to skip nonpresidential elections.
The record turnout of nearly 85 percent in 2008, fueled by enthusiasm for Obama, helped carry Gov. Chris Gregoire to a comfortable re-election in her rematch with Rossi.
Secretary of State Sam Reed has projected 81 percent turnout statewide this year.
But King County Elections Director Sherril Huff has predicted turnout of 87 percent in King County, which would set a record and likely benefit every statewide Democratic candidate.
As of Friday morning, about 515,000 ballots had been returned in the county, more than 43.5 percent of those mailed to eligible voters.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.
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