Updated Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 06:07 PM
Buoyed by strong support in King County, Democrat Jay Inslee looked well-positioned to maintain his party's three-decade winning streak for the governor's office.
Inslee led Republican Rob McKenna by about 51 to 49 percent statewide in votes counted Tuesday.
With a wave of Democratic victories nationally, from President Obama's re-election to a slate of wins in most contested statewide races, cheering Democrats gathered at the election-night party at the Westin in Seattle were optimistic about Inslee's chances.
A confident Inslee took the stage at 10:40 p.m. and stopped just short of declaring victory in a brief speech.
"They are still counting the ballots in the governor's race, but I believe this — I believe tonight our state has taken another step forward and we have elected a forward-looking governor," Inslee said.
Hugging his wife, Trudi, he added: "Let's go do some work. Let's go lead the state."
The mood was more somber at the Republicans' party in Bellevue as news of Republican defeats across the country rolled across TV screens.
But McKenna remained positive when he took the stage to address supporters around 9:30 p.m. He declined to concede and urged the crowd to stay upbeat, with so many votes still to be counted.
"We're going to ask you to be patient for a few more days," McKenna said. "This year it will be worth the wait."
The math doesn't look promising for McKenna.
Trailing by nearly 50,000 votes statewide, McKenna would need to capture 52 percent of the remaining 1.3 million estimated remaining ballots, a Seattle Times analysis found. He was getting 48.7 percent as of Tuesday night.
If the vote split in King County stays the same, McKenna would need 60 percent of the estimated remaining votes outside King County to pull even. He was getting 53.4 percent outside King County on Tuesday.
"King County will overwhelm McKenna," predicted University of Washington political-science professor Matt Barreto, who said there aren't enough votes outside of King County for the Republican to bounce back.
More results are due Wednesday.
Washington state voters have not elected a Republican governor since John Spellman beat then-state Sen. Jim McDermott in 1980. The gubernatorial losing streak is the longest in the country for Republicans.
Secretary of State Sam Reed predicted 81 percent voter turnout, lower than the record-setting 2008 mark of nearly 85 percent.
The governor's race was considered one of the nation's most competitive and drew more than $46 million in campaign spending, including $21 million in independent-expenditure campaigns fueled largely by out-of-state groups.
McKenna, the two-term state attorney general from Bellevue, began the race with an advantage in name familiarity and a reputation as a moderate Republican.
But Democrats spent the past two years relentlessly chipping away at that image, running ads and websites to spread the message that McKenna "isn't who he says he is."
McKenna gave Democrats ammunition for that argument when he joined the national lawsuit attacking the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
While McKenna said he only intended to challenge the law's insurance mandate and unilateral expansion of Medicaid, he signed on to legal briefs that sought to invalidate all of President Obama's signature legislative accomplishment, including the law's protections for cancer patients and women's health care.
But McKenna won praise from supporters for his wonky grasp of state government and his pledge to boost the portion of the state budget that goes to public schools and colleges. If elected, McKenna said, he'd push to hold down growth in other portions of the state budget to gradually free up more money for education.
Inslee, the former eight-term congressman from Bainbridge Island, started out as a lesser-known figure and with questions about whether he was the best candidate Democrats could field. He faced criticism after quitting Congress in March to concentrate on his campaign, after insisting for months he had no plans to do so.
Inslee also faced questions about his knowledge of state issues and reliance on a few talking points, such as his call to import private-sector "lean management" practices into state government.
But Inslee's supporters said he smartly focused on job growth as the chief focus for the next governor. His jobs plan outlined dozens of ideas for the state to boost the growth of targeted industries such as biotech, clean energy and aerospace. And polls showed he had an edge in support on social issues and likability.
Both candidates rejected tax increases that Gov. Chris Gregoire and others have argued are necessary to adequately fund public schools.
McKenna, however, said he'd consider a controversial "tax swap" that would boost property taxes in some wealthy areas while reducing them in poorer rural districts. Inslee seized on that plan, criticizing McKenna for favoring higher taxes.
The two diverged on gay marriage, with Inslee announcing his support at the outset of his campaign. McKenna continued to oppose gay marriage but said he supported the current state law giving same-sex domestic partners virtually all the same rights as married couples.
Inslee and Democrats frequently sought to nationalize the race, reminding voters "Republican Rob McKenna" was tied to the national GOP that has remained unpopular in the state.
When Obama visited, Inslee sprinted out to the tarmac at Boeing Field to grab a photo op. He ran an ad prominently featuring an endorsement by former President Clinton.
McKenna, meanwhile, tried to keep the focus squarely on the state and on the long period of Democratic control of the governor's mansion combined more often than not with majorities in the Legislature.
He declined to make an endorsement in the contested Republican presidential primary and avoided sharing a stage with vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan on Ryan's only visit to the state, saying he had other plans.
Times reporters Brian M. Rosenthal, Lynda V. Mapes and Justin Mayo contributed to this report. Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.
As of 9:55 p.m. Tuesday
Jay Inslee (D): 51%
Rob McKenna (R): 49%
ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Democrat Jay Inslee leans over to hear his wife, Trudi, whisper in his ear after addressing his supporters at the Westin in Seattle. He stopped just short of claiming victory in his brief speech. Washington voters have not elected a Republican governor since 1980.
KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Surrounded by his family, Republican Rob McKenna pauses while acknowledging his late parents during a speech for his supporters Tuesday night in Bellevue.