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Originally published November 8, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 8, 2006 at 2:16 PM

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Democrats make big gains in state

On an Election Day that saw Democrats making huge gains nationwide, the party also has plenty to celebrate here. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell — once...

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

On an Election Day that saw Democrats making huge gains nationwide, the party also has plenty to celebrate here.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell — once considered the Senate's most vulnerable Democratic incumbent — swamped Republican challenger Mike McGavick.

Meanwhile, Democrats were poised to build their strongest majorities in the state Legislature in more than a decade. Several major ballot measures, as well as in a key state Supreme Court race, were also going the Democrats' way.

Democrats were giddy.

"We got our country back tonight," U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said at a Democratic election party in Bellevue.

Republicans were hoping for brighter news in two closely watched congressional races.

Rep. Dave Reichert held a slim lead over Democratic challenger Darcy Burner in the state's 8th Congressional District, an Eastside suburban seat long coveted by Democrats.

In the state's only other hotly contested congressional race, Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris easily fended off challenger Peter Goldmark in the 5th District in Eastern Washington.

But those races will likely hold little consolation for the Republicans.

If Tuesday's vote trends hold, Democrats will be big winners up and down the ballot. And McGavick's showing will be the worst by a Senate challenger since 1982.

"Clearly, Republicans need to regroup," said state GOP Chairwoman Diane Tebelius. "You know, it's one election and a new day tomorrow. I say let's just move on and figure out where we need to change and do things better."

Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton — the Republican stalwart whom Cantwell defeated six years ago — said it was clear what was behind the GOP's dismal Election Day nationwide.

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"You can put it in shorthand by saying the conduct of the war has a lot to do with it," said Gorton, who was watching election results at a Republican gathering in Bellevue.

Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire and others were already pondering the state's increased Democratic clout in Congress.

As the national results rolled in, Democrats at election-night parties took to referring to U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks as "Mr. Chairman." A 30-year veteran, Dicks could be in line to take over as chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee.

Democrats were leading in several key state legislative races, making it likely the party would add several seats to its 56-42 majority in the House and 26-23 edge in the Senate.

In the hardest-fought state Supreme Court race, incumbent Justice Susan Owens — backed heavily by Democrats, labor unions and other liberal groups — cruised to an easy win over Republican state Sen. Steve Johnson.

Owens' victory means the makeup of the court will remain unchanged. Two other incumbents — Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and Justice Tom Chambers — defeated conservative property-rights advocates during the September primary election.

It also appeared voters were rejecting two statewide ballot initiatives that were backed by conservatives and opposed by liberals.

Initiative 933, which would require governments to compensate property owners for land-use restrictions, and Initiative 920, which would repeal Washington's estate tax, were both trailing by wide margins.

Voters were approving I-937, a so-called clean-energy measure that would require power utilities to start relying more heavily on renewable resources such as wind and solar.

Gregoire said the message she took from the election is that voters are pleased with the job she and the Democrat-controlled Legislature have been doing.

"It's very clear, they're saying we like what we see, we like what you're doing, keep it up," she said.

Heading into the 2006 election cycle, Republicans pegged Cantwell as a key target. Republicans were eager to avenge her razor-thin victory over Gorton.

McGavick, a former top aide to Gorton, quit his job as CEO at Safeco to take on Cantwell.

Last spring, Cantwell faced a mini-uprising among Democratic anti-war activists who were angry over her refusal to denounce her vote for the Iraq war. But as was the case with Democrats nationwide, Cantwell worked hard to turn the election into a referendum on President Bush and a scandal-plagued Republican Congress. Bush's approval rating here hasn't topped 40 percent in more than a year.

Cantwell spent the final days of her campaign on a 27-stop "Checklist for Change" tour of the state. Cantwell raised more than $18 million in campaign donations, nearly twice McGavick's total.

In the 8th District, the Democrats, echoing their national strategy, painted Reichert as a rubber stamp for the Bush administration. Reichert, in turn, characterized Burner as inexperienced and warned that she would vote to raise taxes.

The Burner-Reichert race attracted lots of national attention and money. Total spending on the race — by the candidates and outside groups — topped $10.3 million.

In spite of the record-setting rain, poll workers in many places reported heavy voter turnout, though it's unclear whether this year's turnout would reach the 67 percent mark state officials predicted. If it does, it would be the largest in decades for a non-presidential election.

The heavy flooding did cause headaches for election officials. King County was forced to shut down two polling places in Snoqualmie and North Bend and directed voters to alternate locations, and Carnation police were securing ballots overnight that couldn't be delivered to the election office.

Many local races, such as legislative contests, remained undecided early Wednesday. That's because the vast majority of voters statewide cast their ballots by mail and there are hundreds of thousands of ballots yet to be counted.

King County is one of just five counties statewide that do not vote entirely by mail.

Voters in Seattle and King County faced a daunting number of ballot choices. There were so many local races and measures, this year's mail-in ballots required extra postage.

In Seattle, it appeared voters were approving roads and bridges improvement package that would impose the largest property-tax increase in city history.

And voters were favoring King County's Proposition 2, which would increase local sales taxes slightly to pay for additional bus service.

Seattle voters sent a message to the new owners of the Seattle Sonics and Storm, who have indicated they will move the basketball teams unless they get a new arena. Initiative 91, which was passing by a wide margin, would restrict taxpayer subsidies for professional sports teams.

Meanwhile, voters also overturned Seattle's recently adopted strip-club rules, which required that dancers remain a minimum of 4 feet away from customers, banned dances in private rooms and called for brighter lighting inside clubs.

Seattle Times staff reporter Emily Heffter contributed to this report.

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