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And finally, the other cliffhanger.

Any other year, it would have been a blockbuster

It would have been the political story of the year - any year but 2000.

The U.S. Senate contest in Washington state was an election junkie's dream: nasty, expensive, a battle of opposites in both ideology and style that culminated in a neck-and-neck finish, with the political makeup of the world's most exclusive club hanging on the outcome.

As this epic tale reached a crescendo in the weeks after Election Day, where were the pundits? Florida, mostly. With the most protracted presidential contest of the century pounding the headlines day after day, the national news outlets and political chat shows could manage only the briefest mentions of that other election cliffhanger on the opposite coast.

Otherwise, the dome of Washington state's Capitol in Olympia might now be as familiar to television viewers as the statehouse in Tallahassee. Washington state's judges, not Florida's, might have been the ones to have received the civics lecture from the U.S. Supreme Court. The whole country might know the name of Washington's Republican former secretary of state, Ralph Munro -- while his Florida counterpart, Katherine Harris, might be on her way to an anonymous little ambassadorship.

Now Democrat Maria Cantwell is the U.S. senator from Washington. By beating Republican incumbent Slade Gorton, Cantwell denied the GOP a clear majority in the Senate and set up the 50/50 split, with vice president Dick Cheney as the tie-breaker, that lawmakers are just now beginning to grapple with.

The Senate election's outcome, however, was in doubt for weeks after November 2, due not to legal challenges or pregnant chads, but because the race was so close that the winner couldn't be determined until every last absentee ballot had straggled in and been counted.

Gorton led the count for two weeks, although never by more than a single percentage point. The trend shifted dramatically two days before Thanksgiving, when absentee votes from King County (Seattle) put Cantwell ahead by fewer than 1,800 votes. Her lead grew to 1,953 votes when the tabulation was final; a statewide recount, mandatory in close races, extended the margin to 2,229 votes out of almost 2.5 million cast -- a spread of just nine-tenths of 1%.

What gave Cantwell that tiny margin of victory? Pick a theory, any theory.

Money was no doubt part of it. Cantwell, a 42-year-old former one-term congresswoman turned dotcom multimillionaire, refused special-interest contributions but burned up $9.6 million of her own money in the election quest. That pot bought one of the most skilled and vigorous campaign organizations the state has ever seen. Cantwell's team, for example, faxed detailed rebuttals to Gorton campaign ads almost before those spots were aired, and at least once forced Gorton to withdraw an ad because it was inaccurate.

Ideology was probably a greater factor. The 72-year-old Gorton, who had been a part of Washington state's political landscape for more than four decades, was wedded to an old style of power politics that increasingly alienated Washington state's fiercely independent voters. Those voters want effectiveness, but not arrogance. Gorton repeatedly crossed that line in recent years, most blatantly in the infamous "midnight rider," a provision added to a Kosovo aid bill last year, without public notice or hearing, to allow a cyanide-leach gold mine in one of the most pristine and beloved areas of the state.

It's even possible that newspaper editorial pages played a role in the outcome. During a panel discussion at NCEW's convention in Seattle two months before the election, Gorton campaign staffer Tony Williams described editorial endorsements as almost worthless and declared that his man would not be participating in joint endorsement interviews with his opponent.

The fruits of that strategy? Endorsements for Cantwell by The Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Oregonian, and several other major papers in the region, including some that historically had been sure bets in the Gorton column.

Editorial endorsements, worthless? They may well have been worth 2,229 votes out of almost 2.5 million. And in this race, that was the difference that made the difference.

NCEW member Michael Zuzel is an editorial writer for The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash. He and Maura Casey are coeditors of an NCEW book on editorial pages. E-mail him at michael.zuzel@columbina.com
COPYRIGHT 2001 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:ZUZEL, MICHAEL
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Words:720
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