Only got 37 percent.
  • Only got 37 percent.
In the recent primary, Tacoma lawyer and former Planned Parenthood board member Stan Rumbaugh was running against a sitting State Supreme Court justice, Jim Johnson, who was the author of an amazingly retrograde ruling against gay marriage and could fairly be described as a "BIAW-bought, Eyman-backing, pro-guns-for-kids conservative tool."

Successful campaigns have been run on far less ammunition than that.

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So why couldn't Rumbaugh unseat Johnson? Why didn't Rumbaugh win one single county (not even King!) in the primary that ended yesterday? What happened?

“I don’t really want to talk about it," said Lisa MacLean, the political consultant who helped run the Impartial Justice PAC, which spent close to $250,000 trying to tear down Johnson on Rumbaugh's behalf.

But she did talk—a bit.

“Late start, and an entrenched incumbent with a great name," MacLean told me. She was referring to the fact that Rumbaugh didn't enter the race until just before the filing deadline, and people with common names like Johnson always benefit from the not insignificant number of voters who hear a common name and say to themselves, "Sounds like a nice guy."

The late start was a biggie. It made it harder for fundraisers to educate enough donors about the need to get behind Rumbaugh—which, in turn, made it difficult to run a truly statewide campaign. “We didn’t have the budget to really get beyond the base," MacLean said. "I think we spent every dime as well as we could. There just weren’t enough dimes.”

The big question MacLean wants answered is whether the pro-Rumbaugh forces made any headway in stemming voter dropoff in the race. (That's the phenomenon in which low-information progressive voters get half way down the ballot, see the "non-partisan" state supreme court races, don't recognize any names, don't have the help of a big D or R to guide them, and so give up and leave those races blank.)

“I’m very curious about dropoff," MacLean said. "Maybe we stemmed dropoff in King County. [Attempts were certainly made.] But just not enough to offset the dropoff in other places, where we didn’t have money to communicate at all.”
(Details on voter dropoff won't be clear until all the returns are in.)

Consultant Christian Sinderman, who advised Rumbaugh, blamed an energized Republican base. "The only action on the primary ballot was Dino Rossi and Clint Didier, and the 3rd District primary," Sinderman said. "The top of the ticket dictates turnout and the Republican primary was only game in town. With a motivated conservative base and a contested Republican sentate primary, I would argue it was an artificially conservative Republican turnout."

In other words, the campaign was trapped, Sinderman said, between its most viable route of attack and the most likely voters in this low-turnout primary—oh, and that late start didn't help, either.

I think what happened there is that Rumbaugh got a very late start and it was a highly ideological campaign in an electorate that was tipping the opposite direction in terms of ideology. But it was the only way he could go. He could only run a campaign on Johnson’s ideology, and that didn’t mesh with the mood of the electorate. In 2008, he wouldn’t have had a problem because that primary electorate was overwhelming progressive. This one was conservative.

Of course, money always helps. Setting aside the money in MacLean's PAC, Rumbaugh himself could gather only $115,855.46 in contributions (compared to Johnson's $134,804.49).

One question that will have to be asked about this race is why Washington's gay rights community and its allies couldn't cough up more than $115,855.46 (or, if you include the PAC money, more than a total of about $366,000) to help defeat a Washington State Supreme Court justice who had, using scurrilous logic and ancient "studies," declared, in 2006:

Direct comparison between opposite-sex homes and sames-sex homes further support the former as a better environment for children. For example, studies show an average shorter term commitment and more sexual partners for same-sex couples.

It's not like, after being asleep at the switch when Johnson was elected in 2004, the gay rights community didn't know this was coming. "Last time," Josh Friedes, executive director of the gay advocacy group Equal Rights Washington, told me earlier this month, "we learned a lesson. Washington citizens paid dearly. This time, we are doing our work."

ERW sent out e-mails about Rumbaugh, and it encouraged donations to his campaign, but clearly not enough work was done. As one local gay activist pointed out to me yesterday while grimacing at the returns in state supreme court races: If there is enough money in the local gay community to raise $200,000 at one self-praise-loaded, sycophant-packed garden party then there is enough money in the local gay community to bankroll the campaign of a guy like Rumbaugh (who, on the issue of marriage, has said: "I don't see anything in the Constitution that says two people of the same sex can't marry").

Friedes didn't respond to requests for comment on what went wrong.

Rumbaugh, for his part, stuck to the most simple explanation for why he's going down by a 25-point margin, 63-37: "I didn’t get enough votes... There just wasn’t enough interest in the election overall by the people that I needed to have come out and vote for me."

Asked to explain further, Rumbaugh said the Secretary of State's prediction of 38-percent voter turnout looks to him like it ended up being closer to a 26-percent turnout—and that in any case progressives and young voters didn't turn out in high enough numbers to help him.

Maybe it's the nature of an August primary. Or maybe it's the nature of judicial races. "When I was out talking to folks, I’d tell them this is the most important statewide office that nobody knows anything about," Rumbaugh said.

Or maybe it's the nature of not having enough money.

Would more money have helped?

"Maybe," Rumbaugh said.

Will he run again?

"Never say never."