Don't forget the other race that's still 'too close to call'

It may be days before Washington State can name its senator. The outcome will affect control of Congress.

Mike Seely thought he had it all timed perfectly. Like most political operatives, after months of intense campaigning, he was more than ready for a post-election getaway. His destination: the teal waters of Tahiti.

"I need it, and I'm really looking forward to it," said Mr. Seely, a staffer for Maria Cantwell, the Democratic contender for Washington's US senate seat. There's just one catch: "I won't get to find out if we won the election."

While the rest of the country focuses on the surreal presidential election still unfolding in Florida, Washington State is going through its own epilogue to Campaign 2000 - with important national implications in its own right.

The fight between Ms. Cantwell and Sen. Slade Gorton (R) has yet to be called, with roughly 365,000 absentee ballots still uncounted. Hanging in the balance is control of the US Senate: If Cantwell wins, her victory would seat 50 Democrats alongside 50 Republicans, the first time since 1881 that America's highest legislative body has had true parity.

The results will also determine the winner of an ongoing and increasingly acrimonious battle between two states of Washington - one rural and conservative, the other urban and liberal.

But first, Cantwell must overcome Senator Gorton's slim lead. And in the meantime, the two campaigns are left with nothing to do but wait. "There's a kind of weary feeling right now, after going so hard for so long," says Cantwell aide Ellis Conklin.

After a year of campaigning, both candidates and their staffs resemble once-vigorous prizefighters. Both answered the bell with their best punches and withstood their opponent's best shots. Both stayed on their feet for 15 grueling rounds - only to be told that the judges went home for a week to ponder the decision.

"Every day of the campaign was just go, go, go," says Gorton spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman. "Now, it's just waiting, and there's nothing we can do."

So agonizing is the uncertainty that Gorton's staff found relief even in menial tasks - like moving. "We had to be out of our campaign office by last Thursday," Ms. Bergman notes. "That was a good distraction to kill a few hours."

At his Bellevue headquarters east of Seattle, Gorton said last week that he had just one option as the votes trickled in: "Worry," he deadpanned, and then laughed.

North of Seattle, at Cantwell's headquarters, sleep-deprived staffers try to keep awake though meetings, analyze and reanalyze voting trends, and dream of restorative vacations.

"You find yourself rethinking all the moves of the campaign - and wondering what you could have done better," says Creighton Carroll, who has worked seven days a week since May.

One force at work in the election that analysts have been watching closely is Cantwell's identification with the high-tech world. On the one hand, the former Internet executive used her business experience to portray her opponent as out of touch with the New Economy. Yet it remains to be seen whether Gorton again found enough "anti-Seattle" votes to remain Washington's senior senator.

A one-term member of the House of Representatives, Cantwell was ousted in the Republican landslide of 1994, and went to work for RealNetworks when it was just pioneering audio and visual uses of the Internet. In six years, she made a fortune large enough to eschew the "soft money" of political actions committees and fund her Senate run herself.

Though Gorton began his political career as a moderate Seattle legislator before Cantwell was born, his strategy in Senate races has been to champion rural voters and pit them against the "urban elitists."

In the desert communities of eastern Washington, as well as parts of the rainy Olympic Peninsula, Gorton campaigned against big government and radical environmentalists. Collapse of the timber economy has already polarized locals against spotted-owl advocates there.

He supports timber companies, sought to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency, and, in a last-minute gambit that overruled state agencies with an amendment to federal legislation, gave approval to a controversial cyanide leach gold mine in northeastern Washington.

For this, as well as his support of the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, liberals call him "Skeletor" and "Slippery Slade."

And yet they have managed to defeat him only once, in 1986, when he was ousted from the Senate in a close race against Brock Adams. Two years later, he reappeared to defeat liberal former Gov. Mike Lowry. He has been senator ever since.

Whatever happens with the absentee ballots, the result is not expected to be as agonizing as New Hampshire's 1974 Senate race, when Democrat John Durkin tried to unseat Sen. Louis Wyman.

Mr. Durkin won the first count by 10 votes and was certified the winner. Then a recount gave the election to Senator Wyman - by 2 votes - and he also was certified. The Senate, however, refused to seat Wyman, and the governor appointed former Sen. George Aiken to fill the seat on an interim basis. Ten months later, in September, Durkin beat Wyman in a special election and finally became senator.

Anything resembling that would bring nightmares to both camps.

"Everyone's best guess is that we'll know by Wednesday - which seems like an eternity," says Bergman. She was speaking by cellphone on Saturday from a Washington, D.C., salon, where, after months of political barnstorming, she was pampering herself: "I'm in the middle of having a pedicure," she said. "As we speak."

And why not? At least the senator's spokeswoman retains a measure of control over the state of her campaign-weary feet. Which no longer is true for the balance of power in the United States Senate.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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