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Originally published August 11, 2012 at 6:01 PM | Page modified August 11, 2012 at 8:55 PM

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McKenna win would end drought for GOP in races for governor

Republicans haven't won a governor's race in Washington state since 1980, the longest gubernatorial drought in the country for the GOP.

Seattle Times political reporter

A long run of Democrats

Washington state's governors since 1981

John Spellman, Republican 1981-1985

Booth Gardner, Democrat 1985-1993

Mike Lowry, Democrat 1993-1997

Gary Locke, Democrat 1997-2005

Chris Gregoire, Democrat 2005-2012

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The last time a Republican won a governor's race in Washington, Barbra Streisand topped the music charts, Microsoft was a tiny startup in Bellevue, and the University of Washington welcomed a freshman named Rob McKenna.

Since Republican John Spellman's 1980 victory over then-state Sen. Jim McDermott, Republicans have lost seven straight times. They've lost to incumbents and in open-seat contests, in boom times and during down economies.

The nearly three-decade-long losing streak stands as the longest gubernatorial drought in the country for the GOP.

Republicans have high hopes that McKenna, the two-term attorney general, can halt their run of futility this fall.

But McKenna faces some of the same obstacles that have kept his party out of the governor's mansion for so long.

Even Democratic-leaning states such as California, New York and Massachusetts have elected Republican governors during that period.

"It does sort of stand out as really odd," said Eric Ostermeier, author of the Smart Politics blog at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, who has written about Washington's Republican drought.

The only state with a longer period of one-party control of the governor's office is South Dakota, where Democrats have been shut out since 1974, Ostermeier noted.

The Republican losing streak here began in 1984, when Spellman lost his re-election bid. His first term had been marred by a recession, and he supported a sales-tax increase to help fill a massive budget hole.

Spellman was beaten by then-Pierce County Executive Booth Gardner.

Washington Republicans have had a couple of close calls since Spellman's exit, notably former state Sen. Dino Rossi's near-win over Chris Gregoire in the 2004 governor's race. Rossi initially was declared governor-elect and began assembling a transition team, only to lose after two recounts and a lawsuit.

But there also have been blowouts. Twice, the Republican candidate failed to receive 40 percent of the vote.

And aside from Rossi's 129-vote loss in 2004, only one other Republican has finished within 100,000 votes of his Democratic rival: then-Attorney General Ken Eikenberry, who lost in 1992 to former Seattle Congressman Mike Lowry.

Fundamentally, the Republican problem has been that the electorate, particularly in Seattle and King County, has grown increasingly Democratic.

Longtime Seattle pollster Stuart Elway said his latest survey found about 34 percent of voters statewide call themselves Democrats, compared with 28 percent Republicans.

While that leaves 36 percent of voters claiming to be independents, Democrats essentially begin statewide races with roughly a six-point head start.

"Most elections are decided on lower margins," Elway noted.

While Washington voters have tapped Republicans for lower-tier offices, including attorney general and secretary of state, they haven't backed a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Both of Washington's U.S. senators have been Democrats since Maria Cantwell beat Slade Gorton in 2000.

Some of the results can be attributed to timing or even a little bad luck. But Republicans have also sometimes hurt their chances by passing over experienced moderates for firebrand conservatives with questionable résumés.

"The Republican Party has shown an affection for right-wing ideological candidates," said state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz.

In 1996's open-seat race, GOP primary voters passed over state House Majority Leader Dale Foreman and King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng.

Instead, they handed their gubernatorial nomination to Ellen Craswell, a former Poulsbo state senator and self-described "radical" social conservative who vowed to dismantle large parts of government and restore Christian values to the state.

Craswell was easily defeated by Democratic King County Executive Gary Locke.

Four years later, Republicans placed their bets on John Carlson, a conservative talk-radio host. While Carlson had co-authored and campaigned for the state's "three strikes, you're out" initiative, he had no elective experience, and Locke sailed to a second term.

As Carlson notes, the economy that year was also strong and polls showed voters generally content with the direction of the state. "That was a race that was not going to be won despite the outstanding nominee," he said.

This year, voters are not so happy, and Republicans say they have a much better candidate.

McKenna has a base of support in King County, having represented the Bellevue area on the Metropolitan King County Council, and he has won two statewide elections for attorney general.

"You look at the other candidates we've had: They haven't had the statewide name ID and experience that Rob has," said state Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur.

"Rob's got the best chance to win in over a generation," said Carlson. "He's got the smarts, he's got the experience, he's got the intellectual toughness and the work ethic."

McKenna's opponent, former Democratic Congressman Jay Inslee, has run only one previous statewide race. He placed third among Democrats in the 1996 gubernatorial primary.

But McKenna has seen his early poll lead vanish in recent weeks, and he finished second to Inslee in last week's primary.

If McKenna hopes to break the GOP's seven-time losing streak, "He has to run a near-perfect campaign," Elway said. "Inslee doesn't have to be as good because he has the wind at his back."

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.

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