- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2010

DENVER | The Republican juggernaut lost a bit of its steam once it hit the Rocky Mountains, with Democrats and Republicans largely splitting the key contested races for governor and Senate, and Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet pulling out a win in a race that was only called late Wednesday.

While Republicans were able to flip Democratic House seats in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, GOP Senate and gubernatorial candidates were unable to replicate the success of their counterparts in the Midwest and South, coming up just short in nearly every close call.

Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli attributed the Republican fall-off in part to the independent nature of Western voters.

“In the West, there’s less of a partisan political climate than in the East or Midwest,” said Mr. Ciruli. “We have far more unaffiliated voters and far more weak partisans.”

He also credited Democrats for deftly executing their strategy of distancing themselves from President Obama while painting their Republican foes as dangerous extremists.

“The Democratic Party playbook was to make this a contest between the two candidates and not a referendum on Barack Obama; to call your opponent extreme, and to spend a whole lot of money doing it,” said Mr. Ciruli.

Following up on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s tough win in Nevada and Sen. Barbara Boxer’s re-election in California, Mr. Bennet on Wednesday became the third Western Senate Democrat to scrape through, besting Republican Ken Buck, a “tea party”-backed district attorney from Weld County.

With 97 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Bennet led by a margin of 48 percent to 47 percent. Mr. Buck called him Wednesday afternoon to congratulate him on his win.

“Yesterday, Colorado chose to move our state and this country forward,” said Mr. Bennet, who was appointed to the seat when incumbent Ken Salazar was named to President Obama’s Cabinet. “I will do everything I can to live up to the confidence you have placed in me.”

The race, the most expensive Senate contest in the nation, saw Mr. Buck hammering the Democrat’s votes in favor of health care, the stimulus package and the Wall Street bailout. Mr. Bennet countered by blasting the Republican as “too extreme for Colorado,” pointing to his stand on abortion and other social issues.

The same strategy was on display in Nevada, where Mr. Reid managed early on to paint Republican Sharron Angle as a radical right-winger and make her stances, not his, the central issue of the campaign.

Despite his own soaring negative ratings, Mr. Reid won more comfortably than expected, pulling in 50 percent of the vote to Mrs. Angle’s 45 percent.

In California, it was as if voters never heard of the tea party, rejecting a pair of insurgent Republicans in favor of a pair of old-time Democrats. Former Gov. Jerry Brown won a third term 27 years after the end of his previous stint as governor, and Mrs. Boxer kept her Senate seat over former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina.

Still, Republicans claimed enough victories to hold their own in the West. Republican Brian Sandoval easily outdistanced Democrat Rory Reid, Harry Reid’s son, in the Nevada gubernatorial contest.

In New Mexico, Republican Susana Martinez won the governor’s race against Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent, making her the nation’s first female Hispanic governor and giving the Republicans a gubernatorial pickup.

Republicans flipped another Western gubernatorial seat in Wyoming, as Matt Mead easily defeated Democrat Leslie Petersen to replace retiring Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal.

Several key Western races remained up in the air. The Oregon governor’s race was too close to call Wednesday, with Democratic ex-Gov. John Kitzhaber trailing Republican Chris Dudley, a former NBA star, by 11,000 votes with 93 percent of the ballots counted.

The winner of the Alaska Senate race was “write-in,” which all but certainly means Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who launched a write-in campaign after losing the GOP primary. The write-in contingent represented 41 percent of the vote, leading Republican Joe Miller, who received 34 percent, and Democrat Scott McAdams with 24 percent.

Alaska elections officials must now record every write-in vote, a process that is slated to begin Nov. 10. A winner is expected to be announced next week, according to the Associated Press.

And it may be another week before a winner in the Washington Senate race can be determined. Democratic Sen. Patty Murray led Republican Dino Rossi by 14,000 votes, or less than 1 percentage point, after 60 percent of the vote had been tallied Wednesday.

Washington elections are almost entirely conducted by mail, and ballots may be postmarked as late as Election Day, said Dave Ammons, spokesman for the secretary of state’s office.

“The upshot is that about 40 percent of the expected vote is still out,” said Mr. Ammons. “It’s either in the courthouses or still in the mail. There’s quite a pileup in the county courthouses because many voters waited until the last minute to get their ballots in.”

An estimated 350,000 votes are still expected from King County, a Democratic stronghold, while there may be another 200,000 left to count in Spokane and Clark County, where Mr. Rossi held the advantage.

This could be a deja vu moment for Mr. Rossi: He led the 2004 Washington governor’s race before an automatic recount gave the win to Democrat Christine Gregoire. Her margin of victory - 133 votes.