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Originally published August 8, 2010 at 10:01 PM | Page modified August 9, 2010 at 8:00 AM

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Older voters could decide election

Senior citizens are the most reliable of voters. Midterm elections, such as this year's, typically draw fewer voters than a presidential election, which would magnify the effect of the senior vote.

Seattle Times staff reporter

They gather over coffee each weekday morning, chatting about the weather, the Mariners' dismal season and the Louis L'Amour paperbacks they've been reading.

But not politics.

So when a reporter asks this group at the Auburn Senior Activity Center about the upcoming election, a momentary silence ensues before Bob Hellers, 75, announces flatly, "I hope that Patty Murray gets defeated." And from the opposite end of the table, Jerry Clayton, 65, responds just as adamantly that Murray "is one of the best senators we've ever had."

"Now you see why we avoid politics," explains another member of the group, shrugging.

In the interest of coffee-klatch harmony, these folks may choose to avoid the topic of politics, but they are of paramount importance to its practice:

Senior citizens are the most conscientious of voters.

The 2008 general election drew 91 percent of Washington voters age 65 and older, compared with 68 percent of voters younger than 25. The gap was even wider in that year's primary, which drew 72 percent of senior voters and 18 percent of those younger than 25.

Midterm elections, such as this year's, typically draw fewer voters than a presidential election, magnifying the effect of the senior vote.

That could prove worrisome for Democrats, considering that Barack Obama won the White House in 2008 with the support of 66 percent of voters younger than 30, but only 45 percent of those 65 and older, according to Edison Research, which conducts exit polls for national news networks.

Independent district

Pay a visit to the busy city-run senior centers in Auburn and Enumclaw and you'll find welcoming smiles, generous pots of coffee, warm meals and ready conversation.

Just don't look for political consensus or conformity.

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Both centers lie within the state's 31st Legislative District, one of the independent-minded suburban areas where voters decide election-by-election, race-by-race, where to place their allegiance.

"What we agree on is that we all believe in the Constitution," Clayton said. "And that everyone is in entitled to their opinion."

Two years ago, the district went narrowly for Obama, the Democrat. But in 2004, the previous presidential election, it tipped toward George W. Bush, the Republican.

If this year's U.S. Senate race comes down to incumbent Democrat Murray and Republican challenger Dino Rossi, it will pit two candidates who've demonstrated they can win on 31st District soil.

Murray topped Republican George Nethercutt here in her last Senate election, in 2004, and Rossi beat Gov. Chris Gregoire in this district in his two unsuccessful bids for governor, 2004 and 2008, even though Gregoire grew up in Auburn.

The 31st District's best-known politician, state Sen. Pam Roach, is a conservative Republican whose style occasionally puts her at odds with GOP colleagues. And its lone Democratic legislator, Rep. Christopher Hurst of Enumclaw, pointedly filed for re-election as an "Independent Democrat," distancing himself from Seattle liberals.

"We vote for the man, not the party," said Marie Baumann, 91, a regular at the Enumclaw Senior Activity Center with her husband, William, 90.

The Baumanns, who will mark 71 years of marriage in November, are worried about the U.S. economy, not particularly for themselves, but for their 13 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren and 14 (at last count) great-great-grandchildren.

"We've got to bring back our jobs, put people to work here," Marie Baumann said.

The Baumanns say they vote for more Democrats than Republicans, but that there are exceptions: William Baumann favored 8th District Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert two years ago but hasn't decided whom to support for that job this year; and Marie Baumann remains proud of her votes four decades ago for Republican President Nixon ("I still say he was a great man.").

This year, says JoAnne Walters, 72, of Auburn, many seniors are disappointed in the lack of progress on the economy.

"A lot of people were rah-rah for Obama [in 2008] because he was going to bring in a big change and things would get better," she said. "I don't hear people rah-rah-ing anymore."

But another Auburn senior, Chuck Wright, 68, said Obama is getting "a bad rap" for problems that were in place when he took office. "I'm not ready to jump ship yet."

Wright had a disappointing experience with an Obama-backed plan to help seniors and others refinance their homes at a lower interest rates. After a cumbersome process, Wright's application was turned down.

But he blames the financial industry, not the president. "It was a good idea, but it's run by the banks and it's basically a fraud as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Wright says he usually votes for Democrats but expects Republicans to make sizable gains in Congress this year, because of continued problems with the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I don't think people are happy, because what they expected to happen isn't happening."

In Enumclaw, Lillian Popp, 74, says her family felt the recession firsthand when her son was laid off from his job with a credit union. He found work at another credit union, but it's in the Tri-Cities, and he's only able to get home to his family every other weekend.

Still, she said she thinks the country is moving in a positive direction. "Times have been tough," she said, "but I think we're starting to pull out of it."

Hellers, in Auburn, says he usually votes for Republicans, but considers himself an independent. Unemployment, he says, is the country's biggest problem today.

"I have all the sympathy in the world for these people that are unemployed," he said. "I went through it [in the 1950s]. Luckily, I was only laid off for six months."

In the Senate race, he says he'll vote for Rossi. "I think he could help turn things around. At least I hope so."

In Enumclaw, Marshall Gutierrez, 68, is a frequent senior-center volunteer and a retired railroad worker. He says he's drawn to candidates who have the working person in mind. In the Senate race, he says, that means Murray. "She tells it like it is," he said.

A different litmus test

Janice Workman, of Auburn, says she looks not just at a politician's stands on issues, but how he or she comes across as a person and as a leader.

"I hate mudslinging, so I'm not likely not to vote for somebody who has dirty ads," said Workman, 72.

She says deficit spending and the wars are the top issues for her. "I have a grandson who's in the Marines, and that's worrisome. ... He's on a supply ship, so I never know where he's at," she said.

In this year's Senate race, she says she's intrigued by Republican Clint Didier's call for people to take more responsibility for their situation, not rely so much on government.

"If I think he's for real, he could very easily get my vote," she said. But if Didier loses to Rossi in the primary, Workman says, she'll likely hop across the political fence and vote for Murray, simply because Rossi doesn't inspire her.

The idea that a voter could go from a tea-party conservative in the primary to a liberal Democrat in the general election may not follow a script political analysts would write, but it goes with the territory among these voters in this independent-minded district.

Staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

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