Writings and observations

Second of four posts on competitive congressional contests in the Northwest.

Our clearest tipoff that the Washington 5th district contest was getting close came through inadvertence.

close districts mapRepublican Representative Cathy McMorris, seeking her second term in the Republican district, was checking into a telephone conference call with Republican Senator Larry Craig and a group of constituents, on the subject of veterans benefits, a hot topic in the 5th. Before entering the general call, she had what she thought was a private two-way talk with Craig, and said she was concerned that the race in her district was becoming very tight. Craig remarked that polling numbers looked bad all over. Neither of them knew a reporter for the Spokane Spokesman-Review was also on the line, blocked from announcing his presence but able to hear every word.

That was confirmation – since there hadn’t been much objective evidence, such as polling – that Democrat Peter Goldmark was in fact closing on McMorris, putting her re-election at genuine risk.

It was a late-blooming race; Goldmark was more or less universally seen as a longshot when he entered earlier in the year. The seat once held by Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley was securely held by Republican George Nethercutt for a decade; having beaten Foley, Nethercutt was never again in serious jeopardy in the 5th. When he left to pursue (unsucessfully) a Senate seat in 2004, Democrats had high hopes that their candidate, a well-liked Spokane businessman who was well-funded, had a strong shot. McMorris, emerging from a three-way primary, clobbered him with 59.7% of the vote. In this Republican district, where the state legislative delegation was all Republican outside central Zpokane (and one Walla Walla representative), McMorris looked like a solid bet to hold the seat easily. In her first term, she engendered no major controversy or scandal, and seemed reasonably well liked personally.

Goldmark, though well known in agricultural circles, had never run for office before and had to introduce himself to the district. This proceeded slowly, especially since mass news media showed little interest in the contest, and since Goldmark was far behind McMorris in fundraising. (Fundraising picked up toward the end; he ultimately raised about $900,000 to McMorris’ $1.5 million – money was probably not the deciding factor here.)

Washington District 5

Aside from whatever the Democratic tide might contribute, Goldmark did have some issues. One, as indicated, was veteran benefits and care, growing out of a long-running story about veteran health care in eastern Washington. Another was the economic trouble many rural regions encounter; Goldmark made that his signal issue, and his rancher appearance and even his slogan (“riding with Goldmark”) keyed to his rural support. The rural areas are, of course, the most Republican parts of the district.

The end result was McMorris at 56.1% to Goldmark’s 43.9% – McMorris down by 3.6% from 2004, but not very close to a Democratic win.

Two thoughts about this.

One is that a diminished McMorris number this year isn’t what you’d ordinarily expect. When House members win their second terms, especially in districts (like the 5th) where their parties dominate, their numbers usually rise. Nethercutt’s winning percentage, for example, rose from 51% the year he beat Foley to 56% two years later, and that’s not an unusual development. Our speculation is that absent a Democratic tide – in a more or less “neutral” year – McMorris might have pulled around 63% or 64% this year. (That also reflects the greater attention to the race, and the larger Goldmark fundraising, than normally would have been the case.) Did the tide visit the 5th? Yes: It just didn’t reach high enough.

There is a strategic question buried in this, however, for the district’s Democrats to consider. Might the Democratic tide have been leveraged into more – and might it be if another tide occurs in 2008? To that, a qualified yes.

There are a dozen counties in the 5th district, and Goldmark lost all of them. His best (47.3%) was Whitman, home of Washington State University; he polled 45.5% in Spokane County, which is where about two-thirds of votes in the district are cast. (He did well, for a Democrat, in his home Okanogan County, with about 45%.)

But in that same election, Spokane County threw out two Republican state legislators, and two state senators – not the longstanding one senator – will represent it in Olympia. The county was marginal, maybe leaning Democratic (depending on how you apportion it) in legislative races.

Maybe as significant, Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell carried the 5th district, riding over an energetic campaign by Republican Mike McGavick. Cantwell carried three counties in the district, Asotin (50.7%), Whitman (49.3%) and Spokane (50.1%). But a key percentage of people in those places switched from Cantwell to vote for McMorris in the next line on the ballot, and that killed Goldmark’s chances.

Votes for Democratic candidates can be found in this area. It may be that part of Goldmark’s problem was that he looked for them in the wrong place. The Washington 5th is far from a soft touch for Democrats, but the results suggest it is not entirely beyond reach either.

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The Tuesday night Frontline documentary on PBS did a respectable job of overing last year’s Jim West tragedy in Spokane – casting it, reasonably enough, in a classic tragic form, of a man brought down by flaws from within. It did not seem to constitute, as some at the paper apparently had suspected, a sustained blast at the Spokesman-Review, the newspaper whose reporting eventually led to West’s recall as mayor.

Frontline West programThe paper nonetheless seems to have a hard time dealing with it. In the process, it seems to be considering changing an aspect of its own operations that, ironically, allow it to deal more effectively with reports such as this one.

The case, for those unfamiliar with it, concerned Jim West, a long-time Republican state senator elected mayor of Spokane in 2003. (One of the elements left out in the show is that West was generally deemed to have been a good and effective mayor, up to the point the storm hit.) In May 2005, the Spokesman-Review reported that West had been leading a double life, that he had been visiting gay chat rooms and – the paper said this was its main reason for the reportage – had used his position of mayor to further that social life. Somewhat separately, the paper’s reports also linked him to the sexual abuse of minors from years before, when he was a scout leader.

The stories, and they were ongoing for months, created a firestorm in Spokane, and led to a recall election which ousted the mayor. West died of cancer (for which he was being treated during the scandal months) earlier this year.

We followed the story as it unfolded, and read a substantial portion of the related materials the Spokesman posted on its web site – and it posted there not only the many stories in the case, but also many of the raw materials associated with them, including transcripts, tapes, documents and more. This extensive posting was not unusual behavoir for the Spokesman, by the way. Although much of its news content lies behind a pay wall, the paper prides itself on being unusually open in letting the public in on its editorial process and newsgathering. No other Northwest paper is nearly so open; we know of none elsewhere that entirely match it, and we’re big fans of it.

We’ll not here make a unilateral clearance of the Frontline program, but we will note that this was, after all, one episode of normal American television: It sought in less than an hour to explain a man’s life and a mass of reportage that ran to nearly a couple of hundred articles. It left a lot out; as we watched, we remarked on items not included. But then, had they been, the program could have gone on to several hours.

In the Spokesman’s News is a Conversation blog, Spokesman Editor Steve Smith (who was the key figure driving the coverage) had a number of comments today, pointing out errors of commission as well as omission.

I think their mistakes of commission (fact errors) and mistakes of omission were not malicious, in general, but driven by the demands of their narrative and their medium.

But the overall effect, I think, was to seriously dilute the depth, breadth and detail of our reporting and to place far more importance than facts warranted on West’s gayness as the cause of his fall.

Frontline got its Shakespearean tragedy – no one can dispute that Jim West was a tortured man. But I don’t think they got to the truth of the story. And I don’t think they ever understood Spokane.

Here are a couple of the fact errors spotted in an initial, cursory viewing:

• Frontline said that Robert Galliher’s first mention of abuse by West was in a 2005 interview. Incorrect. As we reported, he wrote about the abuse in a 2004 jailhouse letter to a psychiatrist who provided a copy of the letter to the newspaper. It’s posted online.
• Frontline says Galliher could not explain why he failed to report West sooner. Wrong. As we reported Galliher said he feared for his safety, accused West of orchestrating a jailhouse beating and had tried to avoid pointing a finger at a powerful politician with close ties to police.
• The source who first told Morlin he met West online and had sex with him was barely 18 and just out of high school at the time they first began chatting online and had just turned 19 at the time of their “date.” Frontline said he was 20. That is not an inconsiderable mistake given the nature of our reporting.
• The Motorbrock deception lasted less than three months, not the six months described by Frontline.
• West, not Motobrock, turned the online chats to sex.
• West, not Motobrock, raised the prospect of a job/internship at City Hall.
• West, not Motobrock, asked for the personal meeting in April 2005.

The Frontline story suggested the newspaper dropped its investigation of West’s past history of abuse after initial reports. That is not true.

More broadly, Smith wrote, “I thought the show captured a couple of legitimate sentiments; the sense of betrayal felt by Spokane’s gay community and the rage of ordinary Spokane citizens appalled by the mayor’s behavior, but not concerned about his sexuality. That is where Frontline badly missed the point. The producers claimed they came to town to use West as a beginning point for a discussion of the cultural divide in America, of the difficulty of being gay in a small city. They were so focused on the gay issue they forgot that West’s behavior, considered in either a gay or straight context, was simply repellent to citizens who expected a higher standard from the city’s chief executive. As Frontline producers knew, we often talked about the West story as if he had been seeking sex with 18-year-old high school girls, asking ourselves if we would make different decisions or pursue the story in a different way. Frontline viewers should ask themselves the same question and decide if sexuality was the issue or rep[e]llent conduct.”

That last point – would there still be a story if the sexual orientation had been reversed? – in a useful test, and in our view the stories pass it. We’d agree that Frontline was remiss, as it considered what to include or exclude in its report, not to take that point into account.

But it did have to pick and choose, and if it “got its Shakespearean tragedy,” well, that’s sometimes what reporters and editors do. One online critic today needled Smith, “Wow. Just wow. The immense hypocrisy of your take on the Frontline story and the total absence of self-awareness is staggering to read. Have you ever shown the subject of a story the copy in advance? Have you ever molded a story so that it would be more dramatic? As ‘head honcho’ have you ever taken a reporter’s copy and re-directed the focus?”

And the one bit in the Frontline program which really did reflect sourly on the Spokesman was not a fact or narration but a snip of video shot the night West lost his recall election, when Smith and others in the newsroom joked about possible headlines. (If you didn’t see the program, you can probably imagine what the “headlines” were.) Yes, it’s what happens in newsrooms, but in the somewhat tragic context it played like an outtake from Borat.

None of that really seemed to justify what looked like a deluge of negative comments on the Spokesman web site today. (Many were essentially just simplistic defenses of West; many came from outside the Spokesman‘s readership area.)

This whole case had its gray areas. We do think the Spokesman’s coverage and approach was justified, on balance. We can reach that conclusion, and sustain it in the wake of the Frontline piece, with some comfort because the Spokesman has been so open with its investigation.

Which is why we were a little taken aback by this comment on the main Spokesman blog:

An unintended consequence of the initiative is that every decision we make, no matter how routine or small, suddenly is exposed to national scrutiny occasionally generating jarring, off-point, crazy or even damaging responses.

We understand that the Transparent Newsroom isn’t about polishing our newsroom’s or national reputation. It’s about building credibility with our audience, here in Spokane and environs. But no one likes to be criticized in the personal way that Internet discourse encourages and some folks here are beginning to wonder.

If we open our doors to everyone and what we get in return is Tuesday ngiht’s Frontline, how can that possibly help.

We’d suggest that not only would the Tuesday program have reflected much more harshly on the Spokesman, but readers interested afterwards in sorting out the truth for themselves would not have had the many articles and raw materials to help in sifting the facts.

These comments – admitted not from residents of (though frequent visitors to) the Inland Empire, in suggestion that in these Internet days, there’s no longer anymore such thing as a local newspaper. As not only Spokane but the whole country found out once again, Tuesday night.

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This probably makes Washington Senator Patty Murray the most powerful member of the Northwest delegation in the next term: She has been named secretary of the Democratic Conference [that is, of the caucus], the fourth-ranking person in Democratic leadership. Incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid’s statement was that “As Secretary of the Conference , Senator Murray will play a critical role in helping shape and set the Democratic agenda.”

Murray with leadership
Patty Murray, second from right; Majority Leader Harry Reid on her right

In the last decade, Idaho Senator Larry Craig chaired that caucus’ policy committee on the Republican side; that would be the last time someone from the region rose to a similar level in Senate leadership.

The appointment gives Murray considerable clout in the Senate. It also links her tightly to however well the Senate, and the Congress, do in the next few years.

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Apart from one early count on Sound Politics (which has held up pretty well), there hasn’t been much rundown of exactly where Tuesday’s elections left the Washington legislature, other than that Democrats did really well and Republicans didn’t.

Here’s what we take away from the election results so far, recognizing that not all votes have been counted but also that, in most cases, at least enough have to nail down results. We see only two Washington legislative races still in realistic doubt.

Chamber 2004 Dem 2004 Rep 2006 Dem 2006 Rep 2006 undec
Senate 26 23 32 17 0
House 57 41* 64 32 2


*House numbers are thrown a bit by the Rodney Tom party shift.

About the two seats we single out . . . Both are currently held by Republicans who were running for re-election. Incumbent Republican Barbara Bailey in District 10, as of the end of last week, held a 172-vote advantage over Democrat Tim Knue; she’s favored for re-election, but this is still too close to definitely call unless (and this wasn’t clear) all votes are in. On the other hand, Republican incumbent Jim Dunn in District 17 is behind 144 votes, losing to Democrat Pat Campbell; but again, we’re not clear on what ballot remain out there. If one went Democratic, the House split would be 65-32 – a more than two-thirds margin, which could have significance in some House procedural or other actions.

For a good many years, most of the last decade at least, Washington’s statehouse could reasonably have been described as closely split (especially bearing in mind the case of Tim Sheldon in the Senate). That is no longer true: Democrats now hold the most decisive margins in both chambers that either party has enjoyed in a long time.

The Senate seats which appear to shift R to D:

District 6 – Chris Marr (D), defeating Republican incumbent Brad Benson, 56.2%.

District 26 – Derek Kilmer (D), a state representative defeating Jim Hines (R ) 60.4% for the seat vacated by retiring Senator Bob Oke (R).

District 44 – Steve Hobbs (D), defeating Republican incumbent Dave Schmidt, 54%.

District 45 – Eric Oemig (D), defeating Republican state Representative Toby Nixon, for the seat which had been held by Republican Bill Finkbeiner, 53.7%.

District 47 – Claudia Kauffman (D), defeating Mike Riley (R ) for the open seat which had been held by Stephen Johnson (who ran this year for the Supreme Court), 52.4%.

District 48 – Rodney Tom (D), a state representative who earlier this year switched party designation from Republican to Democratic, defeating incumbent Republican Senator Luke Esser, 54%.

You see the number pattern: The last four all are Seattle suburb districts, and 45, 47 and 48 all are on the east side of King County – the most hotly contested turf in the state. The congressional contest which centers on this area – the District 8 U.S. House contest – now seems like to go to incumbent Republican Dave Reichert. But only very narrowly, and then only with a push from the rural part of Pierce County which makes up its southern fifth. Eastern King is moving hard in the Democratic column, and these legislative results show that if he does survive this time Reichert should expect another challenge, just as hard, next time around.

The Democratic House wins were a little more scattered: One around Spokane, one in Kitsap county, a few in central or western King and Pierce counties. These too are transitional and marginal areas.

The most interesting of these may be the most remote from the others – District 6 in Spokane, which went from an all-Republican delegation to two Democrats and one Republican. That means that the three local Spokane area districts (3, 4 and 6) now have five Democrats to four Republicans – compared to six Republicans and three Democrats last term. Are we on the edge of redefining Spokane as we’re in the process of redefining Boise to its south? And the eastside of King County?

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ARepublican whose departure from elective office takes effect in January, and word of it comes out on election day. But for Washington state Senator Alex Deccio of Yakima, the reason isn’t politics – he’s in mid-term and wasn’t up for election this year. It’s health. He’s dealing with prostate cancer, and it needs his attention, and he so informed the appropriate officials (the lieutenant governor and his party’s leaders) on election day.

Alex Deccio
Alex Deccio

Doubtless his party’s leaders were sorry to see him go, but at least he will be replaced by another Republican, in contrast to some other Republicans that day.

There’s a certain other irony here. Some legislators are generalists, and some specialists. While Deccio certainly looked after his district (the Yakima Herald-Republic story on his departure attached a picture of him at the Yakima SunDome, development of which he played a key role), his legislative specialty was health.

Deccio looked at it broadly. You might not expect a Yakima Republican to lead work on AIDS-related legislation in the country, but he did. He did that work while never becoming an outlier in his party’s caucus, a notable achievement. (He did also, it should be noted, take some anti-stem cell research stances as well.)

Democrats looking to work on health issues next session at Olympia may want to review his record; some useful pointers may be found there.

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Much remarked on the general election win by Democratic incumbent Senator Maria Cantwell was its size (57.2% as of this morning – the endless Washington county goes on). We’ll note here of two implications of that.

Cantwell counties 2000
Cantwell counties 2000
Cantwell counties 2006
Cantwell counties 2006

This was a broad win, not just deep. You see the point in the maps of Cantwell’s super-close win in 2000 and this one: Her wins of just five counties of Washington’s 39 has expanded to 22 counties this time. That’s an important demonstration of ability to win in places outside the most liberal sectors of the Puget sound region, which is mostly what she took last time. It’s a demonstration of durability, for one thing.

Some of the county wins had interest of their own. The win along the eastern Spokane-Whitman-Asotin strip was notable, for example. A win in Spokane County wasn’t necessarily very striking by itself, though put together with its award of a second state Senate seat to the Democrats that city – long reputed a Republican bastion – does seem to be in political transition. But Cantwell’s numbers in Asotin and Whitman, normally Republican places, are of note, as is her close loss in Walla Walla County, which similarly could be undergoing some (wine country and gentrification-related) transition.

The decisive win in Clark County may be of some importance too. That county is a generally close partisan split, and Democratic wins there are not especially unusual. But Cantwell lost it last time, and Clark’s fast growth in this decade means a lot of votes have been up for grabs and may be becoming oriented for some time to come. Growing numbers of them there seem to be orienting toward Democratic candidates.

Second point: The touchstone back to the key pair of senators in Washington history, Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson. They were talented senators but the undeniable key to their strength, in addition to mutual cooperation between those very different personalities, was longevity. They started in Congress in the 30s, but not till well into the 50s did their clout really kick in, last then until Magnuson’s defeat in 1980 and Jackson’s death in 1983. That’s not unusual in Congress.

The connection: The key to their longevity was political strength back home, enough to accumulate that seniority. Jackson was generally the more popular of the two, but both often racked up a series of substantial wins and solid percentages (until, of course, Magnuson’s defeat).

The Republican who beat Magnuson, Slade Gorton, was the same man Maria Cantwell defeated in 2000 by a razor-slim margin, raising the question of Cantwell’s vulnerability. This new election has changed that. Her big win this year (over a former Gorton campaign manager) suggests that her odds of holding the seat in the future are fairly good. The same is true of the other Democratic seat from Washington, Patty Murray, who won with 55% iin 2004 and 58% in 1998. They could be here to stay, and could develop something resembling that Scoop and Maggie with more years to come.

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Okay gang: The 2006 campaign cycle is dead. Long live the 2008 cycle – for the next 24 months.

A quick reminder here of what lies ahead.

ALL THREE Presidential contests await. After the results from 2004 and – atop that – this year, Washington, Oregon and Idaho may not be foremost targets; the first two have taken on deeper shades of blue and Idaho remains about as red as ever. But hope may spring quadrennial.

WASHINGTON No Senate race, but the governor and statewides will be up, along with all the U.S. House members, about half the state Senate and all of the state House. The governor’s race is likely to be dominant, so expect action on developing a Republican candidate for Governor Chris Gregoire to kick in before long. Gregoire’s numbers are still not where they really ought to be for a governor at this stage of term; but they are a lot better than in early 2005, and better than Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski’s were a few months back. Will Republican Dino Rossi try again? Our guess is not, though he likely has first right of refusal.

Expect another hard run at the 8th congressional district. As for the legislature – its level of vulnerability may depend greatly on how the enhanced Democratic majority handles its increased power.

OREGON Republican Senator Gordon Smith will be up, and a battle royal that contest may be. In 2002 he won decisively (but short of a landslide) against Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, and polling indicates he remains personally popular. But a working majority of Oregon voters has soured on Republicans, ace fundraising isn’t enough (paging Ron Saxton), and several strong Democratic prospects hanging around out there. (Either former Governor John Kitzhaber, now comfortably recovering from politics though still apparently retaining an interest, or Representative Earl Blumenauer, who’s been visible statewide and burnished his national support network this campaign season, would give Smith a helluva race.

Beyond that, races for partisan constitutional officers other than governor, the U.S. House delegation (all reconfirmed in their electoral strength by this year’s results) and the legislature. Expect the Oregon House, teetering at the brink of partisan control, to return as a high focus of attention.

IDAHO Republican Senator Larry Craig is up, and there’s some question about whether he will run again – a cycle in the minority (where, to be sure, he has been before) after those years in the majority, may be ill-appealing; especially if he wants to set about making some money pre-retirement. He already has a fierce primary opponent in Canyon County Commissioner Robert Vasquez. Some Democrats are trying to talk recent congressional candidate Larry Grant into the race.

The House seats will be up as well, with the question being: What will be the state of play as regards Bill Sali’s first term? The legislature (all of it in Idaho) will be up, with the question: Can the Democrats retain/expand their new substantial base in the city of Boise?

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The results in so far suggest that the worst bit of campaigning tactics Dave Reichert engaged in this season was allowing himself to be photographed with George W. Bush.

We don’t yet know if that was a fatal error. King County has been frustratingly slow in its vote counts, so far – as this is written early Wednesday morning – counting not much more than half of the ballots it has in place. (And more will be coming in the mail beyond that.) So we don’t really know, yet, how the 8th district congressional race (in which Reichert is challenged by Democrat Darcy Burner) is coming out, other than that it is presently close and probably will continue to be.

We see, so far, a string of legislative races in the same general area as that district which mostly have been turning to Democrats, eviscerating what was not long ago a big Republican base on the east side of King County. But we can’t yet be sure that’s happening because the county continues to take its sweet time releasing the numbers.

Well, better accurate than early, if we must choose. But some explanation seems needed. Soon.

The Eastside seems to be the core of action, because not much else in the state seemed to change normal patterns by much. There was a lot of talk that Washington’s 5th district (based around Spokane) was up for grabs – even the Republican incumbent, Cathy McMorris, clearly thought so – but in the end she defeated Democrat Peter Goldmark decisively.

Reichert-Burner has been a lot closer. Reichert has had the edge through most of the counting, but not so much as to – yet at least – put it away.

Back before long.

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In the three states of the Northwest, the magic – or witching – hour is 8 p.m. That’s when the polls close and, soon after, numbers start to roll. (In Idaho, where most people are in Mountain Time, numbers usually do not much roll until
9 p.m. Mountain time, in consideration for the people up north whose voting deadline is an hour later.)

polling place image - Washington Secty State officeWe will, of course, be getting a sense of the national trends before that, since many eastern polls will be closing around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. Northwest time.

Expect that Oregon numbers will be among the first out; its vote counting procedures allow the count to begin on Tuesday well before the polls close. (And remember, only ballot in the hands of county officials by 8 p.m. today will count – in contrast to Washington, where a Tuesday postmark traditionally has sufficed.) Of some interest: With its new heavy reliance on mail voting, how early will be the Washington votes?

Of course, be sure to check back here: As per usual, we will be tracking results mostly on line. In between a short TV appearance and a stop at a political event, our regular stops this evening will include:


  • The Secretary of State’ s office did a fine job of updating on primary election night; it’s our top stop in the Gem State.
  • KTVB-TV traditionally has some of the best and fastest election night results in the state.
  • The Idaho Statesman will have information posted on its front page.
  • In eastern Idaho, try KIFI-TV.



A VIEW FROM CONGRESS Also, this could be interesting: Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) says he plans to blog regularly during election night. Could be interesting to pull the take from his angle.

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We on this site usually don’t get into flat predictions, preferring to deal in odds and probability for events which haven’t yet occurred. But for those interested in predictions – something to tide you over till polls close, Punditology has just the thing.

Around Oregon 346 politically involved and interested people filled out a survey on Monday on how they think the election will go (not to be confused with what they’d prefer), in Oregon. It seems to be the largest and most detailed late-date prediction set in the region, and it probably does constitute a late-game conventional wisdom. Check it out, and then this evening watch it get variously upheld and overturned.

OTHERS David Postman’s Seattle Times blog offers a prediction contest, and some commentary is attached in comments. A thread of Idaho predictions can be found at the Democratic Red State Rebels.

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