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Paint Bainbridge very dark blue

Bainbridge voters weren’t waiting for Nov. 4.

By Wednesday this week, more than 7,000 islanders – nearly one- third of Bainbridge’s total population – had cast early ballots for the 2008 general election.

In all, 17,091 islanders are registered to vote, a mind-boggling figure in a city of roughly 23,000.

“Bainbridge always has had high turnout,” said Walker Willingham, a precinct committee officer who has helped coordinate island voter registration drives. “We’ve been doing a lot of registration work, so this year there are more than normal.”

Heavy turnout is one factor that helps make Bainbridge a political dynamo – one that has favored Democrats heavily in recent elections. Bainbridge votes have given a boost to local candidates, while Bainbridge money and volunteers have helped fuel campaigns at all levels.

This year, Kitsap County elections officials say they are expecting 80 percent turnout among 144,690 registered voters, and 62,793 had already turned in ballots by Wednesday.

Bainbridge Island generally logs higher voter turnout numbers than the rest of Kitsap County. In the 2006 general election, 68 percent of registered Kitsap County voters submitted ballots. In the same election, turnout on Bainbridge hovered at 78 percent, and even in the island precinct with the poorest turnout, 76 percent voted.

In 2004, a year marked by hotly contested gubernatorial and presidential races, Bainbridge matched countywide turnout at 86 percent.

In recent elections, island turnout has been a boon for Democrats in the 23rd Legislative District, which includes North Kitsap and Bainbridge. Islanders account for about 25 percent of all votes cast in the district.

In 2006, Democratic candidates received 8,000 to more than 10,000 votes on Bainbridge while most Republican candidates garnered between 2,500 to 3,500 votes. In that election, island voters played a large part in launching Bainbridge Democrat Christine Rolfes to the state Legislature, as she upset three-term Rep. Beverly Woods.

Woods, a Kingston Republican, had faired relatively well on Bainbridge in 2004, picking up 5,793 island votes on her way to a handy victory in the 23rd. Rolfes, well known on the island as a Bainbridge City Council member, but a newcomer to state politics, outpaced Woods in fundraising in 2006, then took home 55 percent of the vote in the general election.

In areas outside Bainbridge, Woods had edged Rolfes by a little more than 1,000 votes, winning in 42 of the district’s 70 precincts. On Bainbridge, Rolfes won all 22 precincts, gathering 8,867 votes to Woods’ 3,353. Rolfes won the district by a 4,000-vote margin.

Voting isn’t the only way Bainbridge makes a mark in politics.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Web site (www.opensecrets.org), Bainbridge residents have spent $839,262 on political campaigns and committees in this election cycle. The Web site ranks Bainbridge’s 98110 zip code seventh among Washington’s zip codes that give the most money to political campaigns, trailing only Mercer Island ($1,791,338), Bellevue, Medina and several Seattle communities.

Of those donations, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama has been the recipient of $295,053, while his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, has received $40,467 from Bainbridge donors. Sen. Hillary Clinton drew in $40,625 from Bainbridge, in her bid for the Democratic nomination,

With $60,850, Bainbridge is the No. 1 community donating to the campaign of islander and U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, whose 1st Congressional District encompasses North Kitsap and suburban communities north and east of Seattle.

In the 23rd LD, Democratic Legislative incumbents Rep. Sherry Appleton of Poulsbo, Sen. Phil Rockefeller of Bainbridge and Rep. Rolfes have raised $13,155, $20,015, and $32,460 on Bainbridge, respectively, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. By comparison, the campaign Republican senate candidate Connie Lord or Poulsbo, the top fundraiser among Republican candidates in the 23rd, has received a total of $24,125.04

Islanders have been giving up time as well.

During the heat of the presidential primary campaign season, islander Maura Brueger was organizing islanders as a member of Hillary Clinton’s Washington steering committee, while grass-roots events hosted for Obama were drawing crowds.

Since July, volunteers have been streaming into an office tucked away on Hildebrand Lane, making hundreds of phone calls daily to register voters across Kitsap and surrounding counties. The island office is one of two organized by the 23rd Legislative District Democrats.

“Four years ago (Bainbridge volunteers) were coming out of the woodwork,” 23rd LD Democrats Board Chair Remo Barr said. “It’s been amazing this year.”

For their part, island Republicans have also shown energy this year. At the February presidential caucus, the turnout of 149 Republicans was meager compared to the thousands of Democrats who turned out, but a leap forward when compared to the 60 who caucused in 2004. More than 100 were on hand to see Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi when he made a campaign stop on the island in May.

Jack Hamilton, chair of the Kitsap County Republicans’ Central Committee, said his party is well aware of the Democratic advantage in votes and fundraising on Bainbridge.

“A lot of Republican activists have said there’s no point in going to Bainbridge Island, it’s a waste of time,” Hamilton said. “I don’t agree with that.”

Hamilton said its important for Republican candidates to at least have their message heard on Bainbridge, and believes conservatives can begin chipping away at the imbalance. Countywide, Hamilton said, Kitsap Republicans have done a better job of recruiting candidates for the 2008 election than in years past. He points to a spike in Republican precinct committee officers elected in Kitsap County in the August primary as one sign of change.

“It’s building and it takes time,” he said. “You can’t fix problems in a party in one election cycle.”

Former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro, a Bainbridge native who now lives in Olympia, said he may well have been the last Republican candidate to win on Bainbridge in 1996. Since then, he believes that if Kitsap GOP candidates emphasize concrete issues – namely ferries and jobs – over social agendas, they can shift the political tide in Kitsap and on Bainbridge.

“These things come and go,” Munro said. “It will swing back the other way.”

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