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November 7, 2007

The day after

Posted by David Postman at 2:07 PM

There's no doubt that Tuesday's electorate was in a conservative mood. Voters rejected the roads and transit tax hike, made it harder for lawmakers to raise taxes in the future, kept the super-majority standard for school levies and approved a constitutionally-protected budget reserve account.

Tax increases were rejected across the state. In Thurston County, state government's company town, voters turned down a social services/criminal justice tax increase. In Clark County, a fire levy was close, but appears to be failing. A Dupont park district measure was beat easily, so was a Kennewick hospital levy. Yakima County voters could not have sent a clearer message about taxes. About 81 percent of them voted against an advisory ballot measure asking whether the county should consider raising car tabs to pay for road projects.

Election night I talked with Democratic campaign consultant Christian Sinderman. He cautioned against making too much of the results because it was looking like a low turnout, and in off-year elections that often means a more conservative bent to the electorate. Others say the same, and I know that it is generally true.

I'm not sure that theory fully explains the success of the anti-tax, anti-spending, vote last night. But for the sake of argument, let's say it does. Will Democratic candidates in 2008 be confident enough of that to ignore the rumblings of voter discontent? After I-695, remember, Democratic lawmakers who opposed the measure quickly put much of it in law after it was thrown out by the courts.

We're told the economy is humming in Washington. Unemployment rates are close to an all-time low. The state is projecting its largest budget surplus for next year. Voters, though, may be ahead of the economic indicators. Tim Eyman told me this morning:

"Everyone's feeling real queasy about the economy. You throw in the stuff about the mortgage crisis and voters aren't feeling comfortable. Gas prices are going up. ... There clearly was a wave and we happened to be there to catch it."

Is that wave the start of a political sea change? That'd be Republicans' best hope of regaining any meaningful presence in state politics. House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt issued a statement saying:

Last night's election results are a repudiation of a culture failure that permeates government at many levels. A state under one-party rule has resulted in the same people, touting the same old ideas with the same results.

I think DeBolt's describing this in cultural terms is interesting. Gov. Christine Gregoire has worked to create a culture where government, and government spending, is something to be proud of. She worked hard this year to shape a message that spending is an investment in the economy and creates jobs. Gregoire said in January that the big increases she wanted — and got — in the state budget were signs of "exciting times."

"I think the fact that we're headed to that size of the budget is simply an indication that we put people to work and the economy is booming."

Voters said they aren't feeling the excitement. Government spending doesn't seem to be a confidence booster, even though it is helping to drive the economy.

How will Gregoire react to the election results? She's traveling today and as of now unavailable for comment. She's on her way to D.C. to pick up an award for her management of state government. Will she stick with that strategy? (It's award-winning, after all.)

Or will she say she got a different message from voters? One of the early indicators will be her response to the passage of I-960. Will the governor say the voters have spoken and that she and the Legislature need to change how they do business? Or will she look at it as an unconstitutional incursion? Will she back a legal challenge to the initiative?

Is this all good news for Dino Rossi's gubernatorial campaign? It certainly doesn't hurt. Only someone in deep denial can say there was not some consistent theme to yesterday's vote. And that theme plays well into Rossi's constant criticism of state spending.

But I was reminded this morning of something former state Republican Chairman Chris Vance once said. He was asked why Washingtonians approve conservative initiatives espoused by Republicans but vote Democrats into office. And they have done that over and over again:

"They like our ideas, they just don't like us."

It will take more than a tax-queasy electorate to unseat an incumbent. Rossi has to do what no Republican gubernatorial candidate has done in recent times: Tie that discontent to the Democratic incumbent.

Republicans, of course, think Rossi is a candidate that voters can like as much as they dislike taxes. They're confident he can capitalize on what looks the day after at least as a vote of not-so-much-confidence in government. State Republican Party spokesman Josh Kahn said:

"Any signs of discontent are very, very good for Dino's prospects."

Those are my initial thoughts on the election. What do you think? What would you advise the governor to say in response to the results? I didn't get into transportation issues here. But what should the next step be there?

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