Monday, May 23, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Election trial that opens today echoes beyond state

Seattle Times chief political reporter

Trial on TV

TVW public-affairs network will broadcast live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the gubernatorial-election challenge in Chelan County Superior Court, beginning today. Sessions will begin as early as 8:30 a.m. and continue as late as 5 p.m.

Comcast will carry TVW's trial coverage on Comcast On Demand, beginning this evening. Comcast digital-cable subscribers can access the programming at no extra charge. It will be available to digital-cable customers in Western Washington for at least two weeks after the trial.

There likely would be no trial opening today on the November governor's election if the legal fight and political fortunes of Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi didn't fit into the larger interests of the national political parties.

The trial — and its all but certain appeal — will either confirm that Gregoire was legitimately elected or that errors, fraud and illegal votes robbed Rossi of his rightful relocation to the Governor's Mansion.

For Rossi and Gregoire, the goal of the months and millions spent fighting is simple and shared: be governor.

Their fight, though, has been propelled by strategies of their national and state parties. In a nation with a near-deadlocked electorate and little interest in compromise or concession, Democrats and Republicans have turned the once-rare postelection legal fight into a standard piece of political campaigns.

The number of election legal challenges nationwide soared after the disputed 2000 presidential vote in Florida. In 1996 there were 61. In 2002, there were 250, says a forthcoming paper by Richard Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School.

Hasen says the traditional resistance to challenging elections in court is evaporating, threatening what he calls an "electoral meltdown."

"I think there is less of a gentleman's agreement, or an unwritten rule, that you leave the results of a close election alone," Hasen said. "Candidates and campaigns are much more willing to use election law as part of their political strategy."

Washington's contested governor's race is the highest-profile case yet since 2000, when the Florida recount between George W. Bush and Al Gore ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

National Democrats want to exorcise demons left by the too-quick-to-quit Gore and show they can brawl with the best of Republicans. That's been the tone of fund-raising pitches, which gave state Democrats the second recount they needed to make Gregoire governor.

They also see the trial as an opportunity to rehabilitate Gregoire in the eyes of voters left doubting the legitimacy of her election.

For Republicans, a Rossi win last November would have helped realign the state party and served the goal of Bush and his political adviser Karl Rove to build a permanent Republican majority. It would have been a big Red victory in a strong Blue state, making Rossi a national figure.

His race was the closest a Republican had come to winning the governorship since 1980. And this was a candidate who opposed abortion, a position that's become increasingly rare among statewide political figures in Washington.

Republicans say they've already achieved one goal: convincing the public that Gregoire's election was flawed.

Election Day ended with Gregoire leading by 7,000 votes. But Rossi won the full count by 261 votes and then a machine recount by 42 votes. Gregoire won the hand recount by 129 votes and took office in January.

Sending in the troops

It's likely that any statewide election that close would attract attention from the national parties. In this case the candidates quickly took on iconic value.

Rossi was the candidate state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance and Rove wanted. He appealed to the party's conservatives but also suburban moderates and swing voters.

If Rossi had won, Vance said, "It would have been a massive turning point for the Washington State Republican Party. You can't calculate how important that would have been."

A Rossi victory, he said, would have helped keep the party unified and well-funded. "We have to show that we can win," Vance said, "that we are a good investment. It helps with fund raising dramatically."

National Republicans were not about to let that slip away.

The morning after the election, Republican political operatives and lawyers from Washington, D.C., were on the phone.

And soon, officials of the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association started arriving by plane.

"As soon as it looked like this thing was getting ridiculously close, they sent out a bunch of their lawyers to help us during the recount," Vance said. "These people lived here for a while."

At the suggestion of national party officials, Vance hired the leading Republican election attorney, Mark Braden, and an experienced statistician. Someone from Rove's White House Office of Political Affairs often joined the frequent conference calls to plot strategy for Rossi.

Rove himself was on the phone only once, Vance said, to thank everyone for working so hard.

State Democrats issued a fund-raising appeal in March saying that Rove was overseeing "right-wing attorneys" and "extremist operatives" to overturn the election.

Vance, however, said there were no orders from Rove or anyone else at the White House.

"They were monitoring but not directing," he said.

Personal stakes

National Republicans did muster help, though.

In late November, four staff members from the Arizona Republican Party arrived 36 hours after getting a call from the national office, Vance said. They stayed a week.

The general counsel for the Republican Governors Association, Charlie Spies, said that in the initial days after the vote, local Republicans were giving election officials the benefit of the doubt. They didn't think serious problems would be discovered in the count.

"The lawyers who had experience in other jurisdictions outside of Washington kept saying, 'We've got problems in King County,' " Spies said.

Vance said that after heavy involvement in November and December, national party officials "sort of checked out in January to see if we really could put together a viable court case or were we just disappointed losers who refused to quit."

He said national party officials now think Rossi has a strong case.

The trial judge in Wenatchee has the power to declare Rossi the winner, if Republicans prove their case. But Rossi has said he would become governor only on a vote of the people, not a ruling by a judge.

A loss in court would renew calls for him to challenge U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell in next year's election. Rossi has said he wouldn't do that, but Republican officials think there's a chance he'd reconsider.

Gregoire has even more at stake personally. The worst case for her: She's removed from office a year into what was supposed to be a four-year term.

But she said in an interview last week that she pays little attention to the legal challenge and doesn't let it affect her work. Gregoire said, though, that others have infused bigger meaning into the election fight.

"Insiders in the Democratic Party really firmly believe that this is all about holding off Karl Rove and so forth," she said. "But that's an insider's perspective. The average person doesn't know there is litigation going on."

"Shellshocked" Democrats

Democratic State Party Chairman Paul Berendt said he got less interest from national leaders right after the election than Vance did.

"D.C. was pretty shellshocked by the loss of the [John] Kerry campaign so most national Democrats were still licking their wounds over that, quite frankly," Berendt said. "It took awhile to get people focused on our state."

A high-level Kerry campaign aide called and offered to come out to help. Berendt said the aide helped develop "war-room strategies" to respond in the initial days after the election.

The party also provided a D.C. attorney who spent 12 days consulting with local Democrats and hired statisticians to look for vote anomalies.

Democrats quickly parlayed Gregoire's seeming defeat in the first two vote counts into a fund-raising bonanza by selling her as a fighter who would not give up until all options had been exhausted.

"I think for the Democrats there is certainly a bigger meaning," Berendt said. "There was such deep frustration that the Democrats didn't fight harder in Florida and there was even anger that Kerry wouldn't pay for a recount in Ohio" after his loss to Bush.

"Our state became a focus point for this frustration. We were a state that was willing to fight back."

If Democrats can get a judge in one of Washington's most conservative counties to rule in their favor, Berendt said, "we will go a long way toward discrediting Republicans altogether."

Gregoire has been hurt politically by the drawn-out dispute. Polls show that while support for a revote has dropped significantly since Gregoire took office, her favorable ratings still lag.

"We can use this trial to show that Gregoire was the rightful winner, to rehabilitate her in some people's eyes, and restore some confidence in the election process that the Republicans have fought so vigorously just to tear down," Berendt said.

Vance professes some worries about what the political parties have wrought with their postelection fight:

"The public has to trust the results of the ballot count, no matter how close it is. There's a tipping point we've been cognizant of from the beginning."

But experts in recounts and election litigation say there's no sign of the parties backing down.

"There's too much at stake to give up," said Chris Sautter, a D.C.-based Democratic attorney who specializes in recounts and election cases and co-authored a book on the subject. His office consulted with state Democrats in the weeks after the election.

Sautter says the Washington case is rare both in terms of having a statewide office in question and for the length of time the dispute has gone on. He says the 2000 Florida vote changed how election disputes are handled.

"I think what changed is the politicization of the process," Sautter said. "It used to be strictly a process among lawyers. There was little of that constant spin. Now it's part of what [political consultant] Dick Morris called the permanent campaign."

And that erodes public trust in elections, said Hasen, the Loyola Law School professor. People's votes, not lawsuits, are supposed to decide elections.

When political parties push the contest to the courts, he said, "it undermines faith both in the election process and the judicial process and ultimately undermines people's faith in democracy.

"It's much more dangerous than people recognize."

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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