On November 23, 1988, Jolene Unsoeld (b. 1931) declares victory in the 1988 congressional race in Washington's Third District. The outcome has been in doubt since election night more than two weeks earlier, and even on November 23 the win is still unofficial pending a recount. This will occur in December and confirm Unsoeld's victory by 618 votes, representing less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the total votes cast. It's the closest U.S. House election of 1988.
Cruising through the Primary
Jolene Unsoeld had gotten her start in politics nearly two decades earlier in Olympia, when she championed legislation calling for more government transparency and authored two books, both titled Who Gave? Who Got? How Much?, which provided details on contributions received by elected officials and candidates in the 1974 and 1976 state elections. A Democrat, Unsoeld gained recognition and respect for her work, and her mountaineering skills were also seen as a political plus (in 1955, she became the first woman to climb the north face of Grand Teton). In 1984, she was elected to the Washington state legislature.
Unsoeld served two terms in the legislature before running for U.S. House of Representatives in 1988 in Washington's Third District, which stretched from Olympia south to Vancouver, west to the Pacific Ocean, and east to the Cascades. She had the name recognition and record as a legislator, and she was seeking to replace another Democrat, Don Bonker (b. 1937), a popular congressional representative from Vancouver who was retiring after seven terms, in a district that usually voted Democratic. She seemed to be a natural for the position and won the September primary easily, leading two other Democrats and the two Republican candidates.
A Tough General Election
The general election was anything but easy. Unsoeld was up against Bill Wight, a native Washingtonian who had served with distinction in Vietnam and had worked as a lobbyist and U.S. Senate aide during the Reagan administration. He'd just returned to Washington state and, though a political unknown, proved to be a formidable opponent. He ran on an anti-drug, anti-crime, no-new-taxes platform, long-popular topics for Republicans, and especially so in 1988. Unsoeld ran on her record as a community activist and legislator, and as an environmentalist.
Detractors dismissed Unsoeld as an environmental extremist, and during the campaign she gave them an argument when she reiterated her support for a permanent ban on raw-log exports from federal lands. Her support of habitat protection for the northern spotted owl by further restricting timber harvests was also a big problem for a lot of Third District voters. Many newspapers in the district supported Wight, and so did the Republican-leaning Seattle Times. Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925), who was a Republican but had known Unsoeld and her deceased husband, Willi (1926-1979), for years, gave his support to Wight as election day drew nigh, explaining that Unsoeld had "associate[d] herself with extreme left-wing organizations" (Hughes, 44).
A Long Wait ... and a Close Call
Still, Unsoeld was expected to prevail in the general election on November 8. Although she ultimately did win, it was a surprise that her victory was not clear on election night, when she led by just 1,662 votes out of nearly 200,000 cast. There were 19,000 absentee ballots left to be counted, including 3,500 in Lewis County, a staunchly Republican bastion. Results tricked in over the next week, and Unsoeld's lead edged up to 1,776. But Lewis County took its time in counting its ballots, not finishing until November 22, the day before the deadline to submit certified results to the secretary of state's office.
Wight did indeed gain a large number of votes in Lewis County, knocking Unsoeld's overall lead down to a paltry 418. Now, though, there were only 1,300 or so ballots left to be tallied, most of those in more-liberal Thurston County, and the suspense was fading fast. The next day -- the day before Thanksgiving -- the final tally showed a 657-vote victory for Unsoeld. At a press conference at her Olympia headquarters she leapt onto a folding chair and jubilantly claimed victory, telling supporters "There's no question I'm from this Washington. I'll work for you in that Washington" ("'Juggernaut Jolene'").
The numbers were close enough to trigger a mandatory recount, required by state law in races where the winner's margin is less than one-half of 1 percent of the total votes cast. Wight kept a poker face, but there wasn't much expectation that a recount would change the outcome, and it didn't. It did lower Unsoeld's margin of victory to 618 votes out of more than 218,000 cast, a margin of victory of less than three-tenths of 1 percent, making it the closest election (out of 435) for the U.S. House in 1988.