This year’s election could be epic for state

This year’s election in Washington may be one for the ages.

Voters could make this the first and only state in the country to legalize gay marriage and marijuana on the same ballot.

They also are primed to do something the state’s never done before — permit charter schools — and a generation of residents have not witnessed — elect a Republican governor.

And the electorate will fill openings for attorney general, secretary of state, state auditor and three congressional seats, laying the foundation for a new era of leaders.

“It has the potential to be a transformational election,” said Secretary of State Sam Reed, who is retiring at the end of the year.

He’s predicting 81 percent of Washington’s 3.9 million registered voters will participate, a slight dip from 2008 but above the historic average for recent presidential elections.

Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel is forecasting 85 percent of the county’s roughly 414,000 registered voters will take part. As of Friday, 40 percent of the voters had returned their ballots.

The marquee race is the one for governor between Republican Rob McKenna, a two-term attorney general, and Democrat Jay Inslee, who served 15 years in Congress before stepping down to focus on this race.

McKenna is looking to be the first GOP governor since John Spellman served from 1981-85. Recent polling shows Inslee slightly ahead though it’s not by more than the surveys’ margins of error.

Tuesday night the nation will be watching what happens with Referendum 74, which will decide the fate of the state’s gay marriage law, and Initiative 502, which would allow marijuana to be taxed and sold and used recreationally by adults.

“There are a lot of headlines in there,” said Matt Barreto, a professor of political science at the University of Washington. “If the marijuana and marriage equality measures pass, it’ll be historic because it’s never happened anywhere.”

Stuart Elway, a Seattle-based pollster, cautioned against writing any headlines yet.

“The potential is there for this to be pretty epic,” he said. “The potential is also there for that not to happen if we elect another Democratic governor and we vote to turn down those two proposals.”

If McKenna wins, it will be memorable though not historic since Washington has had Republican governors before.

Columnist Joel Connelly of SeattlePI.com, who has covered state politics for 39 years, said it can happen if voters are willing go with Democrat Barack Obama for president — who is way ahead of Republican Mitt Romney in this state in the polls — and McKenna for governor.

Such ticket splits have happened before, he noted. In 1984, Republican President Ronald Reagan won the state’s electoral votes while Democrat Booth Gardner was elected governor. Twenty years earlier, voters backed Republican Dan Evans for governor and Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson for president.

“We’ve gone against the grain in two governor’s elections in my lifetime,” he said. “We may actually do it a third time in 2012.”

Ron Dotzauer of Snohomish, owner of the Strategies 360 marketing and consulting firm in Seattle, said even if that happens the governor’s race won’t be historic.

That label is reserved for the 2004 contest in which Republican Dino Rossi won the first two vote tallies only to lose in a hand count of ballots, an outcome upheld months later in a courtroom.

Approving Referendum 74 would be historic because gay marriage has fallen in elections in 32 other states. With the question of legalizing gay marriage on the ballot in Maine, Maryland and Minnesota, voters in Washington could be the first or among the first to endorse same-sex marriage.

If that happens, it won’t surprise Dotzauer. Washington, which was one of the first states to legalize abortion, has a history of plowing the ground for social change.

“This state has been so initiative and referendum-centric, it’s put Washington on the cusp of historic elections on a lot of social issues,” he said.

Tuesday’s ballot also includes Initiative 1240 which, if passed, would end a ban on publicly funded, privately run charter schools. Voters have turned it down before but there’s been less organized opposition this time.

And the ballot also includes a measure from Mukilteo’s Tim Eyman. Initiative 1185 would re-impose a requirement that any new tax be approved by either a two-thirds majority of the Legislature or voters.

In the meantime, this election is proving to be one for the record books in terms of money.

A total of $157. 5 million had been raised and $152.3 million spent on legislative races and ballot measures as of Thursday, according to data posted online by the state Public Disclosure Commission. The figure excludes money spent on federal and presidential races.

Spending in the governor’s race hovered around $43 million, the most ever for a gubernatorial contest in Washington. McKenna and Inslee accounted for $23.5 million of that sum with independent political committees making up the remainder.

Those outside groups are using their dollars to mostly pummel one candidate or the other.

The Republican Governors Association, for example, has invested $8.9 million against Inslee. Our Washington, a coalition of labor unions and the Democratic Governors Association, is the biggest spender against McKenna at $8.8 million as of Thursday, according to public disclosure commission records.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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