Welcome to the 'Jungle' Primary in Washington

Washington holds its "jungle" primary today, in which all candidates, regardless of party, will enter battles royale in the hopes of advancing to November's ballot. Party nominations? They don't matter. All the voters get to decide.

This will be happening in the House, gubernatorial, and Senate elections, but the most interesting is the latter, in which Democratic Sen. Patty Murray will defend her seat against Republican challenger Dino Rossi and the Tea-Party/Sarah-Palin-backed Clint Didier and fellow conservative Paul Akers. Rossi ran a very close contest for governor in 2004, losing out by a contested 133 votes.

Washington is the only state to conduct its federal primaries this way, except for California, which passed a ballot measure in June enacting the "top-two" or "open" primary system in future election cycles. Louisiana holds "top-two" primaries for its state and local candidates, but did away with the practice for federal elections after 2006.

So tonight's contests will be one of a kind, and the Senate race will feature a very outside (we're talking theoretical) chance that Murray, the incumbent, will actually come in second to Rossi.

Polling indicates that Murray will win, followed by Rossi, followed by Didier, who most likely won't advance to the November ballot. In the latest major poll on this race, a July 27-August 1 automated Public Policy Polling survey of 1,024 likely primary voters, Murray led with 47%, Rossi placed second with 33%, Didier trailed in third with 10%, and Akers took 4%.

Here's what to watch for in this race:

  • Will Didier and Akers prevent Rossi from giving Murray a serious challenge? The conservative candidates could eat up a chunk of the Republican primary vote, making Rossi's total appear less impressive, possibly hurting his momentum and donor appeal.
  • The Obama factor. President Obama has just touched down in Seattle, and he'll visit a bakery to talk about jobs before headlining two private fundraisers for Murray. Will his presence help Murray? PPP found Obama's approval rating in positive territory in Washington, with 49% approving and 47% disapproving.
  • The Tea Party vote/the Sarah Palin and Ron Paul factor. Didier earned the support of both the Tea Party's main demigods, Sarah Palin and Ron Paul. Rossi, on the other hand, has won the backing of the Dick-Armey-led FreedomWorks, the group that has helped organize Tea Party events and trained Tea Party activists. Armey's group is a savvy political operation that chooses its endorsees carefully, analyzing candidates (as it appears to me, anyway) in a process more similar to what the party committees use. After the primary, will the Tea Party vote unite behind Rossi?
  • Has Rossi run too far to the right? The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee claims he has, highlighting this AP story in a memo to reporters this week and pointing out that he supports repealing Democrats' health care and financial reforms.
  • The NFL factor. Clint Didier played six seasons for the Redskins and two seasons for the Packers at tight end from 1982 to 1989 (stats here). NFL preseason is underway. Will it help his appeal?
  • Don't let the primary results fool you: it's a close race, one that's been on the radar of both parties for some time. In head-to-head polling, PP shows Murray leading Rossi by three percentage points, 49% to 46%.