Christine Gregoire wins nation's closest-ever governor's race after recounts and a court battle, while Washington voters re-elect Senator Patty Murray and favor John Kerry for president on November 2, 2004.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 6/07/2005
  • Essay 7336

On November 2, 2004, Washington voters produce the closest governor's race in United States history as they split virtually evenly between Democratic Attorney General Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) and Republican former State Senator Dino Rossi (b. 1959), with about 2 percent favoring Libertarian Ruth Bennett. Democratic Senator Patty Murray (b. 1950) easily defeats Republican U.S. Representative George Nethercutt (b. 1944) to become only the fourth senator from Washington to win a third consecutive term. Democrat John Kerry (b. 1943) wins the state's 11 electoral votes but loses the national election to George W. Bush (b. 1946). In the governor's race, Rossi will narrowly lead the initial count and a machine recount, but Gregoire will take office after being certified the winner by 129 votes following a manual recount. Seven months after Election Day she will prevail against the Republicans' court challenge with a final 133-vote margin. Two overwhelmingly approved initiatives -- to establish a "top two" primary and to clean up the Hanford nuclear reservation -- will also face court battles, which will delay implementation of the new primary system and overturn the Hanford measure.

John Kerry bested George Bush in Washington by 52.82 percent (1,510,201 votes) to 45.64 percent (1,304,894 votes), but Bush retained the presidency by winning 286 electoral votes to Kerry's 251. Unlike 2000, there was no controversial recount or court battle in the presidential race. Instead, Florida 2000 reappeared in Washington's controversial governor's race. Attorney General Gregoire was expected to defeat former legislator Rossi, but she ran well behind fellow Democrats John Kerry and Patty Murray. Gregoire led by about 7,000 votes on election night, but hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots remained to be counted.

Close and Contested

When all 39 counties completed their initial vote count on November 17, 2004, Rossi had a lead of 261 votes, with 1,371,414 to 1,371,153 for Gregoire and 63,346 for Libertarian Ruth Bennett. Because the leading candidates were separated by fewer than 2,000 votes, state law mandated a machine recount. In that count, Rossi gained 1,070 votes but Gregoire gained 1,289 votes, whittling Rossi's lead to only 42 votes. Although Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed (who had easily defeated Democrat Laura Ruderman in his own re-election bid), certified that result on November 30, state law allows any candidate or party to request an additional recount, for which the requestor must pay, with the payment refunded if the recount changes the outcome.

The Democrats requested and paid for a manual (hand) recount, which was completed on December 23, 2004. It showed that Gregoire had won by 129 votes, as she picked up another 919 votes, while Rossi's total increased by only 748 votes. The final results were: Gregoire 1,373,361 votes (48.8730 percent); Rossi 1,373,232 votes (48.8685 percent); and Bennett 63,465 votes (2.2585 percent). Reed granted Gregoire a certificate of election, the State Legislature approved the election results, and Gregoire was sworn in as governor on January 12, 2005.

Asserting that hundreds of convicted felons voted illegally (Washington law requires felons to have their civil rights restored before they can vote) and charging many other irregularities, particularly in the Democratic stronghold of King County, Republican leaders challenged the election in the media and in a lawsuit filed in Chelan County even before Gregoire took office. However, after a two-week trial, on June 6, 2005, Superior Court Judge John Bridges rejected the Republican claims. Bridges ruled that the King County errors were significant but not the result of fraud or intentional manipulation, and that -- except in five instances -- no evidence was presented showing for which gubernatorial candidate (if any) the 1,678 illegal votes identified by the parties were cast. Since the Democrats introduced declarations by four felons that they voted for Rossi (and one who voted for Bennett), Bridges deducted those votes from the official totals, leaving Governor Gregoire with a final margin of 133 votes -- the closest in any gubernatorial election in United States history.

More Court Battles

The governor's race was not the only election result that spawned litigation. Two initiatives overwhelmingly approved by voters (who soundly rejected three other measures) also faced court challenges. The Republican and Democratic parties, bitter courtroom foes in the gubernatorial litigation, joined forces to attack Initiative 872. That measure, sponsored by the Washington State Grange and supported by nearly 60 percent of the electorate -- 1,632,225 votes (59.84 percent) to 1,095,190 votes (40.15 percent) -- established a top two primary election to replace the popular "blanket" primary, which the federal courts invalidated in 2003 at the urging of the political parties.

The blanket primary, adopted in Washington in 1935 with support from the Grange, allowed a voter to select candidates from different parties for different offices on the same primary ballot, with the highest vote-getter in each party for a particular office advancing to the general election. After the Republican, Democratic, and Libertarian parties convinced the courts that the blanket primary was unconstitutional, the Legislature voted to replace it with a top two primary, which also allows voters to choose candidates of different parties for different offices, but in which the top two vote-getters for a position advance to the final even if both are members of the same party. Under pressure from the parties, Governor Gary Locke (b. 1950) partially vetoed the legislation, leaving in place a "Montana-style" primary in which voters were required to select a single party's ballot from which to choose primary candidates.

The Montana-style system was used in the September 2004 primary, eliciting numerous complaints from voters used to being able to select among candidates from different parties. Despite voter dissatisfaction with the Montana-style primary, and the overwhelming vote for I-872, the parties insisted that the top two primary infringed on their right to select their standard-bearers. The Republicans, quickly joined by the Democrats, filed suit and won an injunction against the top two primary before it could be used in the 2005 election. Three years later, in March 2008, the United States Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and allowed the primary system enacted by I-872 to proceed. Washington's first top two primary was held on August 19, 2008.

Ironically, on the same day that I-872 was finally implemented, the state Attorney General's office gave up the legal battle over the other challenged 2004 initiative measure. Initiative 297, intended to clean up the Hanford nuclear site, received more Yes votes than any initiative in the state's history, with 69 percent (1,812,581 votes) in favor and 31 percent (810,795 votes) opposed. But within days of the vote, the federal government brought a lawsuit to overturn I-297, which would have prohibited the government from sending out-of-state nuclear waste to Hanford until existing waste there was cleaned up. In 2006, U.S. District Judge Alan McDonald ruled that I-297 violated the supremacy clause (under which federal law pre-empts state regulation) and commerce clause (forbidding state interference with interstate commerce) of the U.S. constitution. That ruling was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2008 and the Attorney General's office chose not to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Undisputed Results

A relatively unknown outsider who dubbed herself a "Mom in tennis shoes" when first elected in 1992, Patty Murray had become a powerful incumbent in her first two Senate terms, using her position on the appropriations committee to funnel federal spending into the state. George Nethercutt, a popular representative from Eastern Washington who first entered Congress by defeating House Speaker Thomas Foley (1929-2013) was considered a strong opponent but Murray cruised to victory, winning by 54.98 percent (1,549,708 votes) to 42.74 percent (1,204,584 votes).

In doing so Murray joined Democratic predecessors Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) and Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983) -- who each won six consecutive terms and were renowned for their ability to bring federal funds to their home state -- and Republican Wesley L. Jones (1863-1932), who served four terms from 1909 through 1932, as the only Washingtonians to win at least three consecutive Senate elections. Republican Slade Gorton (b. 1928) also won three terms, but not consecutively.

Republican Cathy McMorris (b. 1969) easily captured the Fifth District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that Nethercutt gave up to run for the Senate, defeating Democrat Don Barbieri by 59.68 percent (179,600 votes ) to 40.32 percent (121,333 votes). Republicans also held on to the other open House seat, as King County Sheriff Dave Reichert beat Democratic radio personality Dave Ross by 51.50 percent (173,298 votes) to 46.70 percent (157,148 votes) in the Eighth District, where six-term representative Jennifer Dunn (1941-2007) stepped down.

Incumbents were re-elected in the state's seven other House districts -- Republican Doc Hastings (b. 1941) in the Fourth District, and Democrats Jay Inslee (b. 1951) in the First District, Rick Larsen (b. 1965) in the Second, Brian Baird (b. 1956) in the Third, Norm Dicks (b. 1940) in the Sixth, Jim McDermott (b. 1936) in the Seventh, and Adam Smith (b. 1965) in the Ninth.

Reversing Course

King County voters approved a Charter amendment reducing the size of the 13-member Metropolitan King County Council. The amendment cut the Council to nine members, which was its size until 1994, when Charter amendments adopted in conjunction with merging Metro (the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle) into County government raised it to 13. In Seattle, more than 60 percent of voters rejected a "Monorail Recall" initiative that would have ended the proposed Seattle Monorail Project. However, a year later an almost identical majority voted to end the Monorail Project.


"Washington State 2004 General Elections," State of Washington, Office of the Secretary of State website accessed May 25, 2005 (; "2004 Presidential Election Results," Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections website accessed May 27, 2005 (; Gregory Roberts, "After Spending Millions, Challenger Loses 4 Votes," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 7, 2005 (; Roberts, "Election Case in Judge's Hands," June 4, 2005, Ibid.; Roberts, "Republicans File Suit to Toss Primary System," May 20, 2005 Ibid.; Gene Johnson, "GOP Sues to Have 'Top Two' Primary System Thrown Out," May 19, 2005, Ibid.; Shannon Dininny, "Hanford Legal Battle May Expand," January 21, 2005, Ibid.; "The Contested Governor's Election: A Timeline of Events," The Seattle Times, June 06, 2005 (; Eric Pryne, "Parties Fight to Control Nominee Selection," May 6, 2005, Ibid.; Jim Brunner, "Murray Now In Exclusive Territory: One of 4 Senators to Win Three Straight Terms," November 7, 2004, Ibid; Mike Lindholm, "Monorail Dream Reaches End of Line," November 9, 2005, Ibid.; Eric Pryne, Federal Judge Strikes Down Hanford Nuclear-waste Initiative," June 13, 2006, Ibid.; "Election Results, November 2, 2004 General and Special Elections," King County Elections website accessed June 30, 2006 (; "Hanford: Court Ruling With Stand," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 20, 2008, p. B-1; U.S. v. Manning, 527 F.3d 828 (9th Cir. 2008); Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, ___ U.S. ___, 128 S.Ct. 1184, 170 L.Ed.2d 151 (2008).
Note: This essay was expanded and updated on June 30, 2006, and again on September 5, 2007, and it was updated on August 24, 2008.

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