The way Ruth Bennett figures it, if the Libertarian Party candidate hadn’t been on Washington’s ballot for governor, Christine Gregoire (D) would have waltzed to an uncontroversial victory.

As it turned out, Gregoire’s winning margin of 129 votes made her contest with Dino Rossi (R) the closest gubernatorial race in state history.

While Bennett (’75 Anthro.) finished a distant third with just more than 2 percent of nearly three million votes cast, her 63,465 total nevertheless was plenty to turn the race into a nail-biter. Her tally shrank Gregoire’s margin of victory nearly 500-fold. By Bennett’s estimate, her campaign nearly cost Gregoire the race.

Conventional political wisdom says that Libertarians woo Republican votes with pledges to downsize government, slash taxes, and reduce regulations. Bennett, however, ran her campaign on social freedoms and calculates that some 60 percent of her votes came from would-be Democratic voters.

“I just set out to prove that a Libertarian candidate could attract votes from Democrats and liberals,” she says. “It’s certainly nothing personal about Christine Gregoire.”

She adds, “It depends on the issues you run on. If I would have pushed those [economic] issues, I would have drawn more Republican votes.”

In particular, Bennett trumpeted her belief that gay and lesbian couples should have equal marriage rights. Articulate and active in Seattle’s gay and lesbian community, she was the only gubernatorial candidate to support same-sex marriage in the voter’s pamphlet and bought her only advertisement in the Seattle Gay News. She and her longtime partner considered getting married out of state. “We decided that until we could get married in our own home with our friends there, we thought we would stick it out,” she says.

By contrast, Bennett says, Gregoire “tap-danced” around the controversial issue “as hard and fast as she could.” (A Gregoire spokesman referred questions to the state Democratic Party, but the chairman didn’t return calls for comment.)

Although Rossi opposed gay marriage rights in Washington, a campaign spokeswoman agreed with Bennett that the issue likely cost Gregoire.

“Christine Gregoire, to the dismay of many in her base, refused to take a position on that,” Mary Lane says. “Ruth probably took quite a chunk out of what might have been Gregoire votes.”

A representative of the Seattle Metropolitan Elections Committee for Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgendered Persons, which rated Gregoire ahead of Bennett, says there simply isn’t enough data to prove which major-party candidate Bennett hurt.

Regardless of what caused the tight race, Republicans took the dispute to court seeking a reelection. They offered evidence that more votes than the 129-vote margin were tainted-including ballots illegally cast in the names of felons and dead people. The outcome of the legal tussle was unknown as this issue of Washington State Magazine went to press.

Meanwhile, Gregoire appointed an election reform task force, which developed a 15-point plan to improve the process and restore shaken voter confidence. The task force included as co-chairs Secretary of State Sam Reed (’63 Soc. St., ’68 M.A. Polit. Sci.), WSU president emeritus Sam Smith, and former state legislator Larry Sheahan (’82 Polit. Sci.).

“If anything, I did a service to the voters of this state by showing the problems” after the photo finish put the system under so much scrutiny, Bennett says.

Bennett spent most of her childhood in Longview, before attending Washington State University, where father Wayne Bennett served on the advisory board of the College of Engineering and Architecture.

Her grandfather had been a Democratic state senator in Oregon, her father backed Republicans, and she had doorbelled as a “Youth for Nixon.” After moving to Colorado, she discovered the emerging Libertarian Party, which spoke to a belief in personal responsibility over government intervention.

“What it comes down to is, Libertarians think that individuals are capable of living their own lives, and Democrats and Republicans don’t trust individuals,” she says.

In Colorado during the early 1980s, Bennett was the Libertarians’ state party chair, organized a national convention, and twice ran for state representative, collecting up to 4.5 percent of the vote.

After moving to Seattle, Bennett again was a party leader before turning her focus to her travel business, where she indulged her interest in anthropology while leading tours of pre-Columbian sites in the U.S. and Canada.

She sold her franchise agency in 2000 and made a run for lieutenant governor on the platform that she would abolish the office. Her campaign resonated, and she collected 8 percent of the vote, a big showing for a third-party candidate. Yet in a 2002 run for state representative and last year’s gubernatorial race, she said the media and debate organizers largely ignored her.

“If nothing else, that’s what this [election] shows, that voting third-party can make a huge difference,” says Jan Prince, Bennett’s friend who has run Libertarian campaigns in Colorado. “She is so clear about the issues and morality behind it, and she is so passionate about it. I’ve never seen anybody as good as she is.”