Updated Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 06:44 PM
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee started making plans for a transition team for his administration Wednesday, even as Republican rival Rob McKenna insisted the election wasn't over and predicted he'd ultimately prevail.
Inslee led McKenna by about 51 to 49 percent Wednesday night, a lead of nearly 49,000 votes.
McKenna saw an uptick in his percentage of the more than 216,000 votes counted Wednesday, including 50,000 in King County.
But barring a big turnaround, it appears he will fall short of breaking the Republican Party's 32-year losing streak in gubernatorial elections.
McKenna would need to capture 52 percent of the more than 1 million ballots remaining as of Wednesday night, a Seattle Times analysis found. McKenna is currently getting 48.8 percent of the vote.
Roughly 35 percent of the remaining ballots are in King County, where Inslee led with 63 percent of the vote to McKenna's 37 percent.
If the split in King County stays the same, McKenna would need 61 percent of the estimated remaining votes outside King County to pull even. McKenna is currently getting 53.4 percent outside King County.
A relaxed Inslee projected confidence at a morning news conference Wednesday, telling reporters he planned to start assembling his transition team for the governor's office.
"We feel it's important to do that. We have some big challenges and great opportunities and we want to hit that ground running," Inslee said.
He said he'd be looking for people who will bring a "breath of fresh air" to state government, represent the entire state and focus on his priorities of job creation, health care and education reform.
Asked whether he was declaring victory too early, Inslee said, "It is the voters who have declared victory with their votes."
McKenna did not speak to reporters, but in a video posted to YouTube, he urged supporters to remain patient and predicted he'd win once all the votes were counted.
"Stay tuned, be patient. I know it's hard but it's going the right way," he said.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday night, McKenna's campaign manager, Randy Pepple, said his late tracking polls made him "bullish" that the next few days of vote counts will erase Inslee's lead.
But University of Washington political-science professor Matt Barreto said there is no evidence in the vote trends to indicate McKenna will be elected.
"As we said last night, King County will overwhelm any gains McKenna makes in other parts of the state. While we all understand the McKenna camp's desire to spin a positive story, the numbers do not lie, and he isn't going to win," Barreto said.
In the all-mail election of 2010, the late vote actually trended significantly Democratic.
On election night that year, Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray led Republican challenger Dino Rossi by 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent. But she took nearly 55 percent of the votes counted after election night, a surge that re-elected her to a fourth term.
Exit polling in the 2012 governor's race by a consortium of news organizations showed young voters and women favored Inslee by big margins, while McKenna drew strong support from independents, religious voters and those most worried about taxes.
If McKenna loses, the Republican Party could wind up holding no statewide elected offices for the first time in decades. Their other best hope was in the secretary of state race, where Republican Kim Wyman led Democrat Kathleen Drew by 51 to 49 percent Wednesday.
On Wednesday, The Associated Press projected Democrat Bob Ferguson, a member of the Metropolitan King County Council, had won election as state attorney general, defeating Republican Reagan Dunn and filling the seat being vacated by McKenna.
Democrats also claimed all three open congressional seats on Tuesday's ballot.
Former State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance said that given the GOP's other losses Tuesday, a McKenna win was crucial for the future of the party in the state.
"It would be enormous. It would make this entire election worth it," he said. "On the other hand, if he loses, you have nothing to build around."
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.
As of 9:45 p.m. Wednesday
Jay Inslee (D)
Rob McKenna (R)