Incumbency proved powerful in the West on Tuesday, carrying Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) back to the seat to which she was appointed in 2002 by her father, and helping other Members retain their jobs.
Beyond the Murkowski victory over former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) — in which she won by a wider margin than expected given that she had been tied in polls with Knowles for a year — open House seats proved the most interesting in this region.
In the end, the nepotism issue did not fatally wound Murkowski, even though many Republicans were uneasy with Gov. Frank Murkowski’s (R) decision to appoint his daughter to the Senate seat he had held for 22 years.
The issue never went away, especially as Gov. Murkowski’s popularity plummeted, and was crystallized on Tuesday’s ballot by a voter-driven initiative to strip the governor of any Senate appointment power.
That effort succeeded, yet apparently did not hurt Murkowski, as Republicans had feared it would.
The final tally was close, nonetheless, as President Bush ran strong in the Last Frontier and Murkowski bested Knowles 50 percent to 45 percent.
Murkowski tried to hang Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) around Knowles’ neck like an albatross but Knowles, a former two-term governor, long ago learned how to survive as a Democrat in overwhelmingly Republican Alaska and made his dedication to opening parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling a mantra.
What likely hurt him more was the active campaigning Sen. Ted Stevens (R) — an extremely popular figure in Alaska — did in the campaign’s waning days.
Meanwhile in Washington state, Rep. George Nethercutt (R) suffered a common fate for Senate challengers. Despite running a smart and feisty campaign, he could not break through the Cascade Curtain to topple Sen. Patty Murray (D) and lost, 55 percent to 43 percent.
Republicans were high on Nethercutt and initially hoped that Bush could turn the Evergreen State into a battleground, helping the Spokane lawmaker. But the state went for Kerry and Nethercutt was unable to muster enough support in heavily populated Western Washington to overcome Murray’s war chest and name recognition.
A more hard-fought battle was waged in the suburban Seattle-based 8th district, where radio talk show host Dave Ross (D) and King County Sheriff Dave Reichert (R) were vying to succeed retiring Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R).
Both parties threw millions behind their candidates — neither of whom had sworn party allegiance prior to their inaugural Congressional runs this year — knowing it offered one of the few genuine tossup opportunities in the nation.
While Democrats tried to paint Reichert, who gained national fame when he caught Green River serial killer Gary Ridgway, as too conservative for the swing district, he managed an impressive 52 percent to 47 percent victory by playing up his law enforcement credentials.
The contest to replace Nethercutt in the Spokane-based 5th district proved less exciting than the Democrats had hoped.
Originally, national Democrats thought hotel magnate Don Barbieri had the right mix of business experience and moderate politics to win, but the district’s rural characteristics were stacked against him.
State Rep. Cathy McMorris (R) emerged from a tough three-way primary in September stronger, and with her Republican base more solidified than Democrats had anticipated, handily defeated Barbieri 60 percent to 40 percent.
She was likely aided by a strong turnout for native son Nethercutt in his unsuccessful bid to knock off Murray.
In California, Secretary of State Bill Jones (R) could not ride Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Republican wave to completion and was simply drowned by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D). Boxer, always a tough campaigner, raised more than twice as much money as Jones, pulling in more than $16 million compared to Jones’ $6.6 million.
The Golden State featured two open-seat House races in the 3rd and 20th districts.
Democrats thought they had a chance to pick up the seat being vacated by Rep. Doug Ose (R), but Dan Lungren (R), a former Congressman and state attorney general, cruised to a 62-35 percent victory by unifying divided Republicans and outraising financial adviser Gabe Castillo (D) in this Sacramento-area district.
The Central Valley provided a much more exciting contest, as state Sen. Roy Ashburn (R) made the race to succeed retiring Rep. Cal Dooley (D) closer than most observers had initially anticipated.
Ultimately, however, former state Sen. Jim Costa (D) used the district’s demographics and his two dozen years of experience to his advantage to win 54 percent 46 percent.
Oregon saw a dull Senate race as Sen. Ron Wyden (D) easily won re-election against the relatively unknown Al King (R) as well as a number of third-party candidates.
Two of the Beaver State’s House races were hyped all cycle by the GOP but only the 1st lived up to its billing, mostly as a result of a late revelation that Rep. David Wu (D) may have sexually assaulted a former girlfriend in college almost 30 years ago.
Despite the allegations, which Wu never denied and did apologize for, he pulled out an impressive win against businesswoman Goli Ameri (R), winning re-election 59 percent to 38 percent.
Ameri was a prolific fundraiser, raking in almost as much money as Wu. Both raised about $2 million for the cycle, making the race the second most expensive in the country.
In the 5th district, Rep. Darlene Hooley (D) easily fended off attorney Jim Zupancic (R) despite Republican hopes that he could knock off the four-term Congresswoman, who they think is too liberal for the Salem-based district.
Nevada, thanks largely to the issue of creating a nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain, which is 90 miles from Las Vegas, came down to the wire in the presidential race but that ultimately did former gaming executive Tom Gallagher (D) little good in his effort to unseat freshman Rep. Jon Porter (R).
Democrats banked early on that Gallagher’s fundraising prowess and business ties would give Porter a run for his money, but GOP turnout surpassed expectations and led Porter to a 54 to 41 percent victory.