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Originally published November 3, 2010 at 9:46 PM | Page modified November 4, 2010 at 12:04 PM

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King County votes may tip scales in Murray's favor

Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray widened her lead Wednesday over Republican challenger Dino Rossi, largely on the strength of a Democratic surge in King County that is looking increasingly difficult for Rossi to overcome. Murray led by more than 27,000 votes Wednesday night, up from 14,000 on Election Day.

Seattle Times staff reporters

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray widened her lead Wednesday over Republican challenger Dino Rossi, riding a Democratic surge in King County that is looking increasingly difficult for Rossi to overcome.

With hundreds of thousands of ballots remaining to be counted, Rossi's campaign cautioned that the race is too close to call. But the trend was working in Murray's favor.

Murray led by more than 27,000 votes Wednesday night, up from 14,000 on Election Day. If current patterns hold, Rossi would need to win 51.9 percent of the remaining statewide vote to close the gap, according to a Seattle Times analysis of returns. He had about 49 percent Wednesday.

Rossi's vote percentage slipped from where it had been on Election Day in 18 of 22 counties that had reported new totals as of 7 p.m. Wednesday.

The most significant drop came in King County, home to nearly a third of the state's registered voters. Rossi received about 33 percent of the King County votes counted Wednesday, down from 38 percent on Election Day.

"The King County numbers are devastating for Rossi," said Matt Barreto, political-science professor at the University of Washington, who said he felt even more confident in his election-night analysis predicting a Murray win.

The new vote totals Wednesday also sealed the defeat of the Costco-backed liquor privatization measure, I-1100.

The new counts kept the outcome of other close races in doubt, including the 2nd Congressional District where Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen moved to a narrow lead over Republican challenger John Koster.

Meanwhile, state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders maintained a lead over challenger Charlie Wiggins.

There was little sign in the Seattle area of the so-called "enthusiasm gap" plaguing Democrats nationally. King County officials raised their voter-turnout prediction to 71 percent Wednesday. That was up from an earlier prediction of 68 percent. Statewide turnout was predicted to hit 66 percent, the highest in 40 years for a midterm election.

"The enthusiasm gap evaporated in Washington state," said Dwight Pelz, chairman of the Washington State Democratic Party. "Democrats got energized in the waning days of the election and got out to vote."

But Pat Shortridge, Rossi's campaign manager, said there are too many ballots left to count to reach any conclusions.

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"It's guesswork. We need to see more results. Really, that's the bottom line," he said. "There are a lot of ballots out there, and we've got to count them."

Rossi spokeswoman Jennifer Morris sent a memo to reporters Wednesday noting that hundreds of thousands of votes remain to be counted in Republican-leaning counties. The memo also sought to cast doubt on King County's turnout estimates, calling them "guesstimated."

There were some positive signs for Rossi. He was performing better this year in much of Eastern and Southwest Washington than he did in his 2004 gubernatorial bid, which ended in a virtual tie with then-Attorney General Chris Gregoire.

But his losing margins in the liberal Puget Sound area — especially King County — were also larger than in 2004, as of Wednesday.

More clarity may come to the race Thursday and Friday, as counties plod through the mail-in ballots. About 1.6 million votes have been counted statewide, with perhaps an additional 800,000 to go. More than a third of those would come from King County, if official estimates hold up.

— Staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this story. Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

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