Washington's 'Top Two' Primary Favors Murray, Rossi In Senate Race

For those inhabitants of the Beltway, Washington state was always that other Washington.

The other Washington was also long known for its other kind of primary system, often described as a "blanket" primary, where all candidates, regardless of party, would appear on the same ballot, and the top finishers of each party would advance to the general election.

That system was thrown out by the courts in 2003 and replaced, ultimately, by the system that is being used today, known as the "top two" primary.  Once again, all candidates appear on the same ballot.  But the top two finishers — even if they are from the same party — advance to November.

And that should help the frontrunners in this year's Washington Senate race.  Patty Murray, a Democrat first elected in 1992, is seeking a fourth term.  She is all but assured of finishing on top in today's primary.  And finishing second — and thus Murray's opponent in November — is likely to be Dino Rossi, a Republican who came thisclose to winning the governorship in 2004; he lost to Christine Gregoire by 129 votes out of 2.8 million cast.  (A rematch in 2008 was not nearly as close.)

President Obama is campaigning for Murray today in Seattle.

In this year of the Tea Party, at a time when many Republicans are running further to the right than they normally would in the wake of a conservative backlash against the establishment, an establishment candidate like Rossi might be in some difficulty in the primary against Clint Didier.  Didier is a former NFL player who has taken Tea Party-like stands on most issues and has the backing of Sarah Palin.  But unless a large number of Murray supporters decide to create some mischief and vote for Didier today, the "top two" format will allow Rossi to advance to November.  And so he is spending less time on Didier and more on Murray, who until Rossi belatedly got in the race in May had not been thought of as vulnerable.  Now polls indicate a tough race.

A recent AP story by Curt Woodward about how Rossi "has moved noticeably to the right in recent weeks" has been widely distributed by Democrats.  Obama carried the state in 2008 with 58 percent of the vote.

Having all candidates run on the same ballot in the primary can sometimes tell us about what is in store for November.  Go back to 1994, the year of the last Republican sweep of Congress.  House Speaker Tom Foley (D) received just 35 percent of the vote against three Republicans in the blanket primary; he lost the general election to George Nethercutt.  Also that year, House Democratic incumbents Maria Cantwell, Jolene Unsoeld and Jay Inslee all finished with 44 percent of the vote or less in the primary, and all were defeated in November.

Similarly, in 2000, when GOP Sen. Slade Gorton received under 44 percent of the vote in that year's blanket primary, it sent a signal that he was in trouble for the general; as it was, he lost to a comebacking Cantwell.

So it will be interesting to see the percentages Murray and Rossi reach today.

(A good piece on the primary yesterday by NPR's Martin Kaste on All Things Considered.  You can listen to it here, thanks to our friends at The Two Way.)

One House race of note:  Rep. Brian Baird (D) of the Third District (Vancouver) is retiring after 12 years.  It's one of the seats Republicans need to win if they are going to take back the House this year.  The GOP frontrunner is state Rep. Jaime Herrera, and the Democratic nominee is likely to be former state House majority leader Denny Heck.  While the district twice went to George W. Bush by narrow margins, Obama carried it more comfortably in 2008.

Polls close at 8 p.m. Pacific time (11 p.m. Eastern)/

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