Riding a late-breaking wave of liberal support, Dow Constantine handily defeated Susan Hutchison in a rancorous race for King County executive.

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Riding a late-breaking wave of liberal support, Dow Constantine handily defeated Susan Hutchison on Tuesday in a rancorous race for King County executive.

The two candidates spent a record amount with Constantine hammering at Hutchison, a former TV news anchor, as an inexperienced right-winger and Hutchison bashing Constantine, a Metropolitan King County Council member, as an entrenched politician who mismanaged the county.

Constantine declared an “overwhelming victory” to a rowdy crowd at The Edgewater Hotel in Seattle. Voters weren’t looking for just any change, he said. “They were looking for change consistent with King County.”

Speaking to applauding fans at the Hyatt Regency in Bellevue, Hutchison said she wouldn’t concede Tuesday night. “We’ve had a terrific weekend, and we are going to wait the interminable wait, as the ballots come in.”

With almost 40 percent of the expected votes counted, Constantine held a 57-43 percent edge. Hutchison would have to see a remarkable reversal of those results to make a comeback.

The two candidates spent much of the race arguing about who would be the better person to clean up the county’s budget, which is projected to face a $110 million shortfall over the next two years.

Capitalizing on name recognition from her 20-year career as a KIRO-TV anchor, Hutchison won the Aug. 18 top-two primary election, beating seven opponents, including two Democratic state lawmakers and two Democratic members of the County Council.

Party lines

But the primary revealed a potential pitfall for Hutchison. Although countywide races were made nonpartisan by a voter-approved initiative in 2008 and Hutchison insisted she was nonpartisan, she had strong ties to Republicans. And her four Democratic rivals in the primary grabbed 62 percent of the vote to her 33 percent.

If Constantine, a pro-abortion-rights, pro-labor, pro-transit Democrat, could collect most of the left-leaning votes in the general election, he would win in King County, where 70 percent of the electorate marked their ballots for Barack Obama last year.

Constantine set out to paint Hutchison as an arch-conservative who had contributed to anti-abortion candidates such as Mike Huckabee and George W. Bush. He and union and abortion-rights allies accused Hutchison of running a “big wink” campaign: pretending to be moderate when she was actually King County’s version of Sarah Palin.

Hutchison appeared to blunt some of the attack by coming out in support of Referendum 71 and the state’s “everything-but-marriage” law for gay couples. She also opposed Initiative 1033, Tim Eyman’s latest tax-limiting ballot measure.

Turnaround in race

In early October Hutchison still held a small lead, according to a KING-TV poll.

But then things started to change.

Constantine, the first county-executive candidate to run a $1 million campaign, raised about $300,000 more than Hutchison, and he spent about $100,000 more on TV time than she did through Oct. 27. He pounded away at Hutchison’s values, saying she was too conservative for King County.

His TV bombardment seemed to catch fire with late undecided voters who began tuning in to the race when ballots went out on Oct. 14.

Those voters were swayed by Constantine’s “values” campaign, said John Wyble, who ran state Rep. Ross Hunter’s unsuccessful primary campaign for county executive.

“Dow has more money, and at some point that starts to matter,” Wyble added.

The race flipped shortly after ballots went out, said Constantine spokesman Sandeep Kaushik. “That’s when we ramped up our TV, field operations and phone banks.”

At the same time, campaigns for R-71 and against I-1033 brought out more liberal voters who sided with Constantine.

“Democrats came home” to Constantine after flirting with Hutchison, Kaushik said.

On Election Night, Hutchison told her supporters they had “already changed the culture of the county” with their push for reform.

She said there are things she would have “tweaked” in how she ran the campaign, as a first-time candidate. “I had a gigantic learning curve; I’ve never run a campaign before,” she said. “Those who have been through this before would have had a better instinct, especially at the beginning.”

Constantine credited Hutchison with running a “very vigorous, very strong” campaign.

He took up the reform challenge from her camp: “To her supporters I say this: Give us a chance. I share your concerns about King County. I have made it clear. I’m bringing reform to King County. You watch us. We’re going to do it.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Staff reporters Keith Ervin and Lynda V. Mapes contributed to this report.