Victor in governor’s race still uncertain

OLYMPIA, Wash. – The closest governor’s race in Washington history was forced into a recount Wednesday as counties finished tallying the ballots and found only a few dozen votes separating the candidates out of 2.8 million cast.

Republican Dino Rossi, a former state senator, had a mere 92-vote lead over Democratic Attorney General Christine Gregoire with only about 2,000 votes outstanding. A recount is required by state law when there is less than a 2,000-vote margin.

"After this election, I’m going to have ‘Every vote counts’ tattooed on my forehead," said Gregoire spokesman Morton Brilliant.

Wednesday was the deadline for counting the ballots.

The recount means Washington voters may have to wait until Thanksgiving to find out who their next governor is – a stunning scenario considering the experts never thought it would be this close. Gregoire was considered the favorite.

"We really aren’t going to know before we do this recount who the governor is going to be," said Secretary of State Sam Reed, a Republican who will oversee the recount process. "I feel sorry for Attorney General Gregoire and Senator Rossi."

Washington is one of two states (the other is Alaska) that allow voters to mail ballots on Election Day, so votes have trickled in at an agonizingly slow pace.

As political junkies across the country have recovered from their presidential election withdrawal, they have turned to the Washington governor’s race for entertainment. Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat who is stepping down after two terms, said he has "never seen anything like this before."

"It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s like a two-week playoff series. But it’s a lot more important than a ballgame," said Joe Arko, a Texas doctor who has been following the Washington election religiously on the internet.

The election is reminiscent of the 2000 U.S. Senate race in Washington that took several weeks of counting and recounting before Democrat Maria Cantwell was declared the winner over Republican incumbent Slade Gorton.

Washington is a Democrat-leaning state that has not elected a Republican governor since 1980. John Kerry won the state with 53 percent of the vote, Locke easily defeated Republican opponents in the past two elections, and Democrats control the Legislature.

So why is this election so close?

Gregoire was the Democrats’ wonder woman. Polished and popular, the 57-year-old attorney general won national recognition as lead negotiator of the national tobacco settlement in the late 1990s. But her campaign struggled to find a message that resonated with voters.

Rossi, meanwhile, surprised everyone with a slick, strong campaign that painted him as a compassionate conservative. The 45-year-old Rossi, a wealthy real estate agent, lacked name recognition outside his district, but his promise of a fresh start in state government caught on with voters.

"Gregoire ran a front-runner, media-based race, where she did not take controversial positions, and focused her resources on the media rather than the grass roots, and that’s very dangerous," said political scientist Ken Hoover, a professor at Western Washington University. "Rossi had a somewhat sharper message."

Washington elections are usually clean to the point of dullness. But the twists and turns in the vote counting have sparked conspiracy theories and court battles.

"We have arrived at the moment which all reasonable Washingtonians have dreaded for four years: the moment when the Court is asked to micromanage an election," Judge Dean Lum wrote in a decision ordering that certain provisional ballots be counted.