Memories still raw for candidates from 2004 race for Washington governor

Nov 5, 2020, 12:28 PM | Updated: 5:35 pm
Gregoire and Rossi, Washington governor...
When Democrat Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi ran for governor of Washington in 2004, it was one of the closest and most tumultuous elections in Evergreen State history. (Feliks Banel)
(Feliks Banel)

It was a close election followed by a prolonged series of legal battles and torturous recounts that lasted until two days before Christmas. When it was all over, the candidate who’d lost the previous ballot counts was declared the victor. The entire matter was settled, legally speaking, only after seven months of wrangling.

No, this isn’t a prediction about the 2020 presidential election. Rather, it’s a look back to the Washington governor’s race of 2004, perhaps the closest and most bitterly contested statewide election in our history.

Democrat Christine Gregoire, who was then the three-term Washington Attorney General, and Republican State Senator Dino Rossi were running against each other in the general election to succeed two-term Democrat Gary Locke.

The race ended up being much closer than anybody expected. Washington had not elected a Republican governor for more than 20 years, and practically no one anticipated that Christine Gregoire would have any difficulty defeating Dino Rossi to lead the Evergreen State.

Sixteen years later, the two former rivals spoke with KIRO Radio separately to share their respective recollections and reflections.

But first, it’s worth reviewing the timeline of how the bitter post-election battle unfolded.

On Election Night –Tuesday, November 2, 2004 – Christine Gregoire led by roughly 7,000 votes, with hundreds of thousands of absentees not yet counted and a total 2.9 million ballots cast that year. As the counting continued a week later, Dino Rossi was leading by more than 2,000 votes. Meanwhile, a legal battle was heating up over provisional ballots in Democratic stronghold King County that Democrats wanted to count.

By November 17, Rossi’s lead had narrowed to 261 votes, and he was declared governor-elect, but the slim margin triggered an automatic machine recount. Following the machine recount, Rossi’s lead shrunk to just 42 votes. On December 8, a hand recount began – paid for in advance by the Democrats – and the legal battle intensified over which ballots qualified for recounting, and whether or not ballots that had been rejected the first time around could be included in the recount.

By December 23, the hand recount was done – and so was the first round of the legal battle, which had gone all the way to the State Supreme Court, which accepted King County’s provisional ballots as well as other so-called “Magical Mystery” ballots. The final tally put Christine Gregoire ahead by 129 votes, and she assumed the title of “governor-elect” of Washington.

Gregoire’s inauguration took place on January 12, 2005, though a Republican effort to set aside the results of the election via a lawsuit in Chelan County was already underway. It would ultimately be decided in the Democrat’s favor, and the Republicans would drop their challenge, in June 2005.

Christine Gregoire is in her 70s now and running a think-tank called Challenge Seattle. The memories of the emotional side of the 2004 election still seem pretty raw.

“You stop to think for yourself, ‘I can lose this by 42 votes,’ and you ask yourself, ‘Wasn’t there something more you could have done, or are there 43 hands you could have shaken, wasn’t there something you should have done?’ and you just start second-guessing everything you did,” Gregoire said. “So it is not just some technical decision-making thing. It is a absolute roller coaster of emotion, and particularly hard on our daughters and my husband.”

Gregoire acknowledges that for a Democrat to end up in so tight a finish in a governor’s race in Washington in 2004 was something that shouldn’t have happened.

“I think our campaign could have been better,” Gregoire said. “So I want to take responsibility right off for that.”

Since Washington hadn’t elected a Republican governor since John Spellman beat Jim McDermott in the Reagan landslide of 1980, what was it that made 2004 so different?

“I think there was an appetite for a change because we had had a Democratic governor for so many years,” Gregoire said. “Because of that, I think there was complacency, quite frankly, with a number of folks in my party who thought, you know, ‘it’s pretty guaranteed, so not to worry.’”

Dino Rossi is in his early 60s. He’s been a commercial real estate investor since his early 20s. He’s also a Republican former state senator who’s been involved in electoral politics since the early 1990s.

Rossi is pretty matter-of-fact about what he believes happened in 2004. He doesn’t say it in so many words, but one might say he thinks that the election was essentially stolen by the Democrats, or, at the very least, that the deck was stacked against Republican candidates, especially in King County.

“You have every lever,” Rossi said, of the opposing party’s advantages in the 2004 battle. “You have the Democrat-appointed judges for 30 years. You have a sloppy system in King County that can be exploited. You have no one really looking over their shoulder, because we really thought, ‘Well, that kind of thing doesn’t happen here in Washington state.”

“We were ignorant at the time as to how these things are done,” Rossi said.

Like Gregoire, Rossi concedes it was up to each candidate to run the strongest campaign possible and to avoid ending with only a narrow margin of victory.

“Obviously, you do have to win by a bigger margin,” Rossi said. “But you know, running eight points ahead of the president was about all we could do.”

Running eight percentage points ahead of President George W. Bush in the 2004 election was pretty good for a Republican gubernatorial candidate in the Evergreen State, though voters here once reliably split loyalties amongst the major parties.

In the not so distant past, Washington voters often elected both Republicans and Democrats in the same statewide elections, such as Republican Governor Dan Evans and Democrat U.S. Senators Scoop Jackson and Warren Magnuson in the 1960s and 1970s – and then Democrat Governors Gary Locke, Christine Gregoire, and Jay Inslee who were elected at the same time as a series of Republican Secretaries of State, and Republican U.S. Senator Slade Gorton.

Perhaps social and economic realities of 2004 meant that the governor’s election that year was some kind of a throwback or time warp to those earlier decades, or perhaps Rossi and Gregoire were just equally matched as campaigners or in their appeal to voters.

Whatever the reason – and contrary to Rossi’s opinion – Christine Gregoire rejects the notion of the 2004 election having been stolen.

“Whatever happened happened by human error, not by intention, not by anything corrupt or wrong. I just fundamentally disagree [that the election was stolen],” she said.

Still, Gregoire is not unsympathetic to Dino Rossi.

“I can understand if I was on the losing end at the end of the day, how hurt I’d feel and angry I’d feel,” Gregoire said.

“I learned two big lessons [in 2004],” Gregoire continued. “One is personal, which is it’s not the way to win an election. It’s not the way to lose an election, quite frankly. It’s just an emotional tug of war. But two, I learned it is not good for your state.”

Christine Gregoire was inaugurated in January 2005, while the legal battle – Gregoire’s legal team include future Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan – continued until June 2005. That was when a judge in Chelan County rejected the Republican request to set aside the election and to force a new election. Rossi and the Republicans declined to appeal to the State Supreme Court, citing a Democratic majority they believed unlikely to find in their favor.

Rossi says it took a little while to get over the disappointment.

“It was probably a couple of months,” Rossi said. “It didn’t take that long because … if you hold onto stuff like that, it’s just corrosive in your life. You’ve got to keep moving, to keep doing things.”

Dino Rossi challenged incumbent Governor Gregoire in 2008, and lost by about six points with no recounts or delays. Two years later, he unsuccessfully challenged Patty Murray for the U.S. Senate, and then in 2018, he lost to Kim Schrier in a race for the 8th District U.S. House seat. Whatever had worked for Rossi in 2004 was gone by the Great Recession of 2008.

Talking to both Rossi and Gregoire 16 years later, it’s clear that both were put through a personal and professional wringer being candidates in that contentious election.

Still, Dino Rossi says he has no hard feelings toward Christine Gregoire for denying him the statewide victory that he came so close to in 2004. He says the two occasionally even cross paths.

“We’ve been at events and fundraisers together,” Rossi said. “I have no animosity towards her. I never did, you know.”

“I just thought I could do a better job,” he added.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Memories still raw for candidates from 2004 race for Washington governor