In 2004, Republican Dino Rossi took an initial lead in the Washington state governor’s race. Then there was a machine recount and Rossi won that, too. Then there was a hand recount, and that placed Democrat Christine Gregoire in the lead—by 129 votes out of nearly 3 million cast. She would go on to serve two terms. (Rossi lost a race for U.S. House this month, his fourth in a string of losses that began in 2004.)
“It was one of the worst times in my professional life,” Gregoire told me. “As a candidate, you think to yourself, ‘Really, I couldn’t have shaken that many more hands?’ You blame yourself. You have regret. My heart goes out to folks in that now.”
Imagine footage you’ve surely seen of Olympic sprinters running so hard that they careen face-forward and fall on the track just after crossing the finish line. A political campaign is a bit like that. From the candidate on down, team members know they just have to make it to Election Day, putting all their energy into the battle before finally getting a chance to catch their breath on Wednesday. Now, imagine that after having finished a 100-meter race, and giving it his all, a runner learns that he has to run another 500 meters—only faster. That’s kind of what it’s like to have a recount.
“A candidate has this mindset: They work so hard all this time, but at least they know they’re going to get a decision that night or the next day. Win or lose, they’ll get a decision and it will be over,” Gregoire says. “When that doesn’t happen, you have no idea how much of a jolt it will be.
Not only do you not get a decision—you don’t know when you’ll get a decision.”
Gregoire’s campaign didn’t have a plan for a recount in place, so she immediately had to begin figuring out what the law was and how things worked. Stephanie Schriock at least had a little bit of head start.
Four years after Gregoire’s win, Republican U.S. Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota seemed to have survived a challenge from Al Franken and even declared victory. But in the end it was the Democrat who triumphed, though it took months for him to claim his seat. Franken won by less than 250 votes.
Schriock, who is now the president of EMILY’s List, managed Franken’s campaign. Two years before, she’d led Jon Tester’s extremely close U.S. Senate campaign in Montana. Ahead of that election, she assigned a lawyer to read up on the recount laws and put them in terms a non-lawyer could understand.
“On Election Night, I said, ‘Break the glass, we need the documents!’” she says. “I spent Election Night reading that memo. I did not make that mistake in Minnesota. We also knew we were very close going in.”
Because of her experience on the Tester campaign, she’d even been asked by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to train other campaign managers ahead of the 2008 election. That came in handy when she found the Franken-Coleman race headed toward a recount, but it didn’t really prepare her for the fight ahead.