King County was key to Cantwell win, analyst says


Scripps-McClatchy Western Service

TACOMA — In March, two months after Maria Cantwell announced that she would try to uproot U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, her own polling showed only 9 percent of people across the state either knew who she was or had any opinion about her.

But after a recount confirmed her narrow victory, she was off to Washington, D.C., last week preparing to take her seat in the U.S. Senate.

The 42-year-old Democrat — a one-term congresswoman and high-tech executive — managed to at least temporarily end 72-year-old Gorton’s four-decade political career.

And the lingering question is how a relative unknown with a base of support mainly in Seattle could oust the longtime conservative with support practically everywhere else.

The answers are as plentiful as people asked: the nearly $10 million she gave her campaign; her business success; Gorton’s age; his list of enemies.

"In a really close race, anything and everything can make a difference," said Todd Donovan, political science professor at Western Washington University.

Although the "how" of Cantwell’s win might be murky, where she won is clear.

The dotcom millionaire won only five of the state’s 39 counties, but she took almost 59 percent of the 783,056 King County votes cast in the race.

Gorton won all the legislative districts in East King County. But his margins there were relatively slim. Even in his Clyde Hill home district he took 51.61 percent of the vote, compared to Cantwell’s 46.52 percent.

Cantwell’s wins in Seattle’s urban districts were huge. She took between 68 and 80 percent of the votes in the urban 11th, 36th, 46th, 43rd and 37th.

And she held her own in some of the suburbs. She squeaked out a victory in King County’s portion of the usually Republican 30th, including Federal Way. Gorton’s victory in the Pierce County sliver of the 30th was significant enough for him to win the district overall.

Cantwell won 61 percent of the vote in the 32nd, which includes Lake Forest Park, and won a narrow victory in the 1st (Bothell), 50.87 percent to Gorton’s 47.09 percent.

Gorton expected to lose in King County.

In early October, during campaign stops in University Place and Puyallup, he told The News Tribune his "sort-of secret" for winning: to make up for losses in King County in Pierce and Snohomish.

But that didn’t happen. Cantwell won Snohomish, and Gorton’s victory in Pierce rested on just about 2,000 votes.

"This time, King County was too much to overcome," said Gorton spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman, in Washington, D.C., cleaning out Gorton’s office. "She won five counties, we won everything else. So, the King County voter is willing to toss out a guy who’s been willing to give so much to the state: natural resources, trade, recreational opportunities. It’s tough to take."

Cantwell acknowledges it will be a challenge to become better known across the state.

This week, she’ll visit Vancouver, Spokane and Longview to continue her campaign to represent everyone.

State elections manager Gary McIntosh said it’s not unusual for candidates’ vote tallies to be much different in Eastern and Western Washington.

"King’s got a third of the state," he said, "so if you can pull off a major victory there, and are able to hold your own everywhere else and pick up another major county or two, you’re going to be in good shape."

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