Callaghan: Several spins on how state's primary election played out

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

Three columns for the price of one about the Aug. 7 primary:

To the spinner go the spoils: More than a year ago, Washington's political insiders decided contested primaries are bad. Only one feasible Democrat and one feasible Republican were allowed/encouraged to enter the race for governor. So what do they do with the essentially uncontested primary? Use it for spin, of course.

On Election Day, newsies received a memo from Rob McKenna's campaign manager warning us not to be fooled by his rival's spin. Then he did some spinning of his own. "Rob McKenna's gubernatorial campaign has long been focused on the November 6 general election," wrote Randy Pepple. "The campaign for Congressman Jay Inslee has evidently been focused a bit more on the primary election, in hopes of generating momentum — even a false momentum at that."

Pepple's evidence was a five-week-old memo from Inslee's campaign manager, Joby Shimomura, warning supporters that Inslee might not do well in the primary. Though he would spend money on TV and on a get-out-the-vote campaign prior to the primary, it was really aimed at November, she wrote. "The best conceivable GOTV effort simply won't increase turnout enough to put Jay in first place in the primary," Shimomura wrote. She blamed a primary electorate that is more conservative than the general electorate.

Not so, said Pepple. The primary electorate is smaller but not more conservative, he said, and Inslee's camp is just trying to lower expectations. Of course, it was: "History tells us the primary is an extremely steep hill and doesn't determine the ultimate winner," Shimomura wrote.

But Pepple was trying to lower expectations, too: "The McKenna campaign expects Attorney General McKenna to finish in the top two in tonight's primary, and thus move on to the general election."

Seattle pollster Stuart Elway, mostly nonpartisan but with a background in Republican campaigns, thinks the primary electorate is more conservative, older, more established, more partisan. And Inslee "won" the primary.

Incumbents waltz: This was the first look at new districts created by the bipartisan state Redistricting Commission. And it appears commissioners did their job well -- if their job was to protect the parties that appointed them.

Of the 10 congressional districts, only one appears competitive -- the 1st, with no incumbent to protect. In return for letting Democratic commissioners create a safe seat in the new 10th, Republicans were allowed to make surrounding districts more Republican and even give the GOP a chance in the 6th District.

Here is how the primary treated incumbents: Rick Larson, 2nd District, 59.5 percent; Jaime Herrera Buetler, 3rd District, 55 percent; Doc Hastings, 4th District, 57 percent (another Republican took an additional 11 percent); Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, 5th District, 54 percent (another Republican took an additional 8 percent); Jim McDermott, 7th District, 69 percent; Dave Reichert, 8th District, 50.4 percent (two other Republicans took an additional 11 percent); Adam Smith, 9th District, 60.5 percent (another Democrat took an additional 7 percent).

In legislative races, there appear to be only a handful of competitive districts, with most incumbents having an easy time.

Top two to the rescue: In super-safe districts, do you let that sure-to-lose party nominate candidates who will offer only token opposition to the dominant party? Do you give voters a choice without a chance? Or, as in the top two, do you sometimes let the general election become a competitive choice between members of the same party who offer real differences? Tacoma's 27th, Spokane's 3rd and Seattle's 46th are Democratic districts that have runoffs between two Democrats. Eastern Washington's 7th, 12th and 16th are Republican districts with runoffs between two Republicans.

The general election will usually be Republican v. Democrat. But top two offers a needed safety valve for safe districts.