Herald news services and staff
OLYMPIA – Democratic challenger Maria Cantwell scored an apparent victory in the country’s last unsettled U.S. Senate contest today, but the race was still headed for an automatic recount.
A Cantwell victory would give the state two women senators for the first time in its history and two Democrats for the first time since the glory days of “Scoop” Jackson and Warren G. “Maggie” Magnuson in the 1970s.
And it would create a rare 50-50 tie in the Senate – at least until the all-tied-up presidential race is decided.
Cantwell, 42, had a lead of 2,104 votes with more than 2.4 million ballots counted and about 3,000 left to count. About 11,000 new ballots had been counted this afternoon, padding her slim lead by about 750.
Cantwell had 1,197,442 votes or 48.73 percent, to Gorton’s 1,194,901 votes or 48.63 percent. Libertarian Jeff Jared had 64,563 or 2.62 percent.
Cantwell pulled into the lead for the first time on Tuesday, primarily due to returns from her bastion, King County, which includes heavily Democratic Seattle.
“We’re feeling confident of victory,” said Cantwell spokesman Ellis Conklin. “We have a sense of euphoria – exhaustion and euphoria blended together.”
Gorton wasn’t conceding, but spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said: “We’re losing. It looks like it’s going to be tough to make it up.”
Both camps said Cantwell did better in the final tallies, particularly in vote-rich King, Pierce, Snohomish and Whatcom counties, than either side had projected.
“At the end, the trend line improved for us nearly everywhere,” Conklin said. Special ballots, including those cast by college students at the wrong precinct, and absentee ballots mailed on election night went strongly for Cantwell, he said.
Libertarian Jared, a Kirkland attorney, may have been a factor. Jared said his 65,000 votes were due in great part to unhappiness with Gorton’s stance in favor of some gun-control laws and his reluctance to cut the size and cost of government.
“Gorton’s record is to blame, not me,” he said.
Cantwell swamped Gorton by more than 150,000 votes in King County. She also was carrying Jefferson, San Juan, Snohomish and Thurston counties. Gorton was carrying the other 34 counties, although the race was close in Kitsap and Pierce counties.
Conklin said no one on the Cantwell staff has done any serious transition planning, but if she wins, they will rely heavily on Democrat Patty Murray, who would become the state’s senior senator after just eight years in office.
Today was the deadline for the state’s 39 counties to complete the counting that had dragged on for more than two weeks. Over 700,000 votes have been tallied since election night, mostly absentee ballots postmarked Nov. 7, but not received or processed for days after that.
Secretary of State Ralph Munro plans to order a recount Monday, when he will certify the county results. That is expected to be largely complete by the end of next week.
Under Washington law, a recount is automatic whenever a margin is less than 0.5 percent, or about 12,000 votes in the case of this year’s Senate election.
In recent years, recounts have been ordered for several congressional races and ballot measures. None reversed the original outcome.
Gorton himself had to go through a recount 32 years ago, when he won his first term as state attorney general. He has been in public office since 1958, the year Cantwell was born, except for a two-year break in Senate service after losing a 1986 re-election bid.
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