SEATTLE - Democratic Sen. Patty Murray headed into a second day of vote-counting in her toughest re-election contest yet, holding a small but clear lead over Republican Dino Rossi as mail-in ballots trickled into county election offices.
It wasn't the first time Washingtonians have gone to bed without knowing the winner in a major election. In 2004, Rossi waged a historically close campaign for governor that wouldn't end until the following summer. Four years before that, Democrat Maria Cantwell beat Republican Sen. Slade Gorton by about 2,000 votes after a re-count.
Murray and Rossi's 2010 contest wasn't in that league after Tuesday's tallies, but it remained too close to call. With more than half the expected ballots counted, Murray led with about 50.5 percent to Rossi's 49.5 percent. Her margin was about 14,000 votes out of more than 1.4 million already counted.
Murray was holding onto the lead with her performance in counties in the Puget Sound region, particularly King and Snohomish. Rossi pulled ahead in Pierce County in late returns Tuesday.
Speaking to cheering supporters, Murray sounded very confident that she was going to come out on top.
"We are winning tonight," said Murray. "And we are going to win even bigger tomorrow. We are going to win this race."
Rossi thanked supporters who were aware they probably weren't going to know who won Tuesday night.
"Unfortunately, we don't know what's going to happen in this race yet," Rossi told supporters in Bellevue. "There's still a lot of ballots to count, you know. But it's Washington state. What are you going to do?"
"The good news is that the areas we do quite well in have a bigger turnout," said Rossi. "but, we got a lot of counting still to do."
Washington's election actually began two weeks ago, after county officials finished sending out ballots in the state's mostly vote-by-mail system. Voters may cast ballots as early or late as they wish, provided they are postmarked by Nov. 2, and that means the outcome of big races are not always known on Election Day.
Opinion polls in the contest have been erratic -- perhaps due to Washington's unusual voting system and lack of partisan voter registration -- but overall, surveys point to a competitive race. Nearly 40 percent of the expected ballots already have been returned, state officials estimate.
If the Murray-Rossi contest is too close to call on Tuesday and control of the Senate remains in question, the nation's eyes would turn to Washington.
Although the state has not suffered as deeply as other states following the Great Recession, the sour economy and related pocketbook issues have dominated the discussion. An avalanche of campaign spending has saturated the airwaves with political ads, many sharply negative in tone.
Rossi has cast Murray as a tax-and-spend liberal wedded to a fiscally irresponsible Washington, D.C., establishment. He touts his experience as a successful real-estate investor and former state legislative budget writer to show he'd be better at controlling federal spending and aiding the economy.
Murray, currently No. 4 in Senate leadership, has reminded voters of her ability to deliver bridges, highways, hospitals and other projects in their neighborhoods. Murray also has played up her advocacy for the Boeing Co., the state's largest private employer and an important barometer of its economic health.
Murray has vastly outspent Rossi through their individual campaigns -- nearly $15 million to his roughly $2.5 million through September.
But outside groups, flush with money under new federal campaign spending rules, have poured millions more into the race. Figures compiled by the Sunlight Foundation show Rossi has benefited from about $10.4 million in outside spending while Murray can count about $8.2 million.
Both candidates' backgrounds are well-known in the state -- Murray from three Senate terms, Rossi from two failed bids for governor in the past six years. Couple that with the race's importance in national politics and a negative campaign was probably unavoidable.
Democrats have portrayed Rossi as too conservative on social issues, particularly abortion. Rossi, a Roman Catholic, opposes abortion except in cases of rape or incest. Washington's electorate is generally further to the left on abortion rights.
Rossi and Republicans have focused the intertwining paths of Murray's campaign contributors and her "earmarked" spending for pet projects.
The state has a history of close races in recent major elections. Rossi was on the losing end of its closest: The 2004 governor's race, which took three vote counts, a lawsuit and nearly eight months to finally resolve. Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire was the winner by just 133 votes out of nearly 3 million cast.
In 2000, while the country watched George W. Bush and Al Gore battle for the presidency, Democrat Maria Cantwell defeated veteran Republican Sen. Slade Gorton in a re-count by about 2,000 votes. That Democratic victory pushed the Senate into a 50-50 partisan tie.