Cantwell takes narrow lead in see-saw Senate race


Associated Press

OLYMPIA – Democratic challenger Maria Cantwell edged into the lead in the nation’s last unsettled Senate contest today, but the race was headed toward an automatic recount next week.

Cantwell, 42, a dot-com millionaire and former congresswoman, forged into the lead for the first time since election night on the strength of returns from King County, which includes heavily Democratic Seattle.

But Gorton, 72, the three-term Republican incumbent, remained optimistic that votes from outlying counties would restore his lead, for good.

Cantwell picked up 7,717 additional votes in King County, her strongest, while Gorton was gaining only 4,814 votes there. That wiped out, at least temporarily, the tenuous hold Gorton has had over Cantwell.

With more than 2.4 million votes cast, Cantwell had a lead of less than 2,000 votes over Gorton, who has been in public office since the year she was born, 1958.

Wednesday is the deadline for counties to complete their counts and to certify the results.

On the last major day of counting before that deadline, Gorton continued to hold an edge in populous Pierce County, which is home to Tacoma, and had a big lead in a band of small counties that reported by mid-afternoon today. He expected to pick up more from the Eastern Washington stronghold of Spokane County and to stay close in Cantwell’s home county of Snohomish, just north of Seattle.

While both camps continued to express optimism of winning a narrow victory, nothing will be final until a mandatory recount occurs. 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.

Secretary of State Ralph Munro is expected to call the recount next Monday after certifying county results that day. The recount could begin as early as the same afternoon if counties have given the candidates proper two-day notice, said Munro spokesman David Brine.

The recount “can take as long as it takes,” but most counties are expected to wind up their work next week, he said. Many counties can do their machine recount in one day, larger counties may need two days and the largest counties, including King, probably will need three or more days, he said.

Results will be posted on the state’s official election web site, but Munro does not certify the election until Dec. 7 – including the Senate numbers if recounts are not continuing.

Neither side has talked about the time-consuming alternative of a hand recount, as some counties in Florida are doing in the presidential count. State law provides for automatic, taxpayer-funded hand recounts in statewide races where the margin is less than 150 votes.

The Senate contest is the closest race for statewide office since 1968. That one, too, involved Gorton and a recount. In his first race for attorney general, the Seattle lawyer and state lawmaker defeated Democrat John McCutcheon by 5,368 votes.

Before King and the larger counties reported today, Gorton had a lead of 957 votes.

After King reported, Gorton had 1,178,823 votes,or 48.65 percent; Cantwell had 1,180,760, or 48.73 percent; and Libertarian Jeff Jared had 63,199, or 2.6 percent.

More than 660,000 votes have been counted since election night two weeks ago. About 1.7 million were counted election night.

The late count is so large because many Washington voters have signed up for permanent absentee ballots, meaning they vote by mail. Election officials estimate that more than half of this year’s vote was by mail.

State law doesn’t require that ballots be in the courthouse by election day, only that they be postmarked on that date.

If Cantwell defeats Gorton, the Senate would be tied 50-50 – the first even split in a century. If Al Gore wins the White House and his vice president, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, turns over his seat to a Republican appointee, the GOP membership would rise to 51 seats.

If George W. Bush wins the White House, his vice president, Dick Cheney, would be able to break ties in a 50-50 Senate.

If Gorton and Bush win, the Republicans get 51 seats. If Gorton and Gore win, the GOP will have 52 seats.

In other state races, Republican Sam Reed continues to hold about a 10,000-vote lead over Democrat Don Bonker for the open secretary of state post. And in the Legislature, the House appears headed for another 49-49 tie while Democrats seem poised to hold on to a one-seat majority in the Senate.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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