ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING….What is going on in Washington State, anyway? In 2000, the Maria Cantwell/Slade Gorton Senate race led to multiple recounts before Cantwell was declared the winner one month after the election. And now in this year’s gubernatorial race, a machine recount has left Democrat Christine Gregoire a mere 42 votes behind Republican Dino Rossi. Democrats are pressing for a hand recount–a request that has been backed by the Republican Secretary of State, Sam Reed–but they’ll need to raise at least $700,000 by the end of the week to finance the recount.

So what’s up? It’s true that Washington is really two states–Seattle and, well, the rest of the state–but it’s not really a toss-up. Kerry won the state by a good seven percentage points, the state legislature is now completely controlled by Democrats, Democrats have ruled from the governor’s mansion for the past twenty years, and Patty Murray handily beat Rep. George Nethercutt this year to hold onto her Senate seat.

A friend of mine who knows the state’s political scene well says that a recent problem for Democrats is a tendency to run weak candidates against Republicans who are fairly moderate and hard to demonize. Sam Reed, for example, has not only supported Gregoire’s request for a hand recount, but also proposed election reforms that would have required a more extensive paper trail to make precisely this kind of situation easier to resolve. His efforts were defeated in the state House by his Democratic opponent, who needed an issue to use against him in the general election. In other races, several Democrats who had an actual chance of winning were vetoed in the primaries by groups like Emily’s List for being insufficiently pro-choice, as if the Land Commissioner’s portfolio includes abortion policy.

Gregoire doesn’t entirely fit this mold. She was extremely popular as Attorney General and, while perhaps not seen as a slam-dunk in the gubernatorial race, was the odds-on favorite going into the general election. The combination of a bad media consultant and campaign overconfidence may have done her in. Whatever the eventual result, Washington state Democrats need to take a good look at recent history to figure out how to take back their competitive edge in a state that should be solidly blue.

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Amy Sullivan is a Chicago-based journalist who has written about religion, politics, and culture as a senior editor for Time, National Journal, and Yahoo. She was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2004 to 2006.