After his failed presidential bid, Gov. Jay Inslee plans to stay in office, but Republicans see vulnerability

As Gov. Jay Inslee returns his focus to this Washington, some see his bid for a third term as an opportunity for a new direction. - GAGE SKIDMORE PHOTO
Gage Skidmore photo
As Gov. Jay Inslee returns his focus to this Washington, some see his bid for a third term as an opportunity for a new direction.

For a while, 2020 was looking like it could be a big shakeup year for Washington state politics.

With Gov. Jay Inslee eyeing the White House, the state's highest office was looking like it might be up for grabs. As Inslee toured the country and took the national stage for early debates, current state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, and King County Executive Dow Constantine were all waiting for the go-ahead to duke it out against Republican contenders for governor.

In turn, eyeing their state and local offices were folks like progressive Seattle City Councilwoman Lorena González, who wanted to continue Ferguson's legacy of high-profile lawsuits against the Trump administration, and state Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat from Bainbridge Island, who this summer announced she was exploring running for lands commissioner.

But then last week, Inslee announced that, actually, he'd be ending his presidential bid. He'd hit a benchmark of more than 130,000 individual donors but failed to get 2 percent support in national polls, a requirement to make it into the next round of debates. The next day, he confirmed he'd run for a third term as governor.

"The state of Washington has provided the nation a roadmap for climate action, innovation, and economic growth. And we're not done yet," Inslee said on Twitter Aug. 22. "I want to continue to stand with you in opposing Donald Trump and rejecting his hurtful and divisive agenda, while strengthening and enhancing Washington state's role as a progressive beacon for the nation."

The ripple effect was swift: Ferguson announced he'd stay put, as did Franz and Constantine. González, who'd officially announced her candidacy for AG just two weeks before, took her name out of the running. Similarly, in announcing her interest in the lands commissioner gig, Rolfes had stipulated she would only run if Franz wasn't running.

For Republicans who'd been monitoring the potential openings in the highest state offices, all of those dominoes falling into place meant one thing: Go for the governor.

"Gov. Inslee is the most vulnerable of the potential Democratic candidates," says Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party. "He's sent the message he doesn't want this office. Governor of Washington state is not a consolation prize."

While the Republican Party always eyes offices like state attorney general with the goal of putting forward strong conservative candidates, the 2020 gubernatorial election will be their main focus, Heimlich says.

"I certainly think this scenario gives us the best chance of winning the governor's mansion," Heimlich says.

He points to issues during Inslee's two-term tenure, including increased traffic congestion and a crisis in mental health treatment, with the federal government no longer certifying Western State Hospital as meeting acceptable treatment levels, resulting in a loss of tens of millions in funding. A computer glitch had the Department of Corrections release prisoners too early, and Heimlich says there's been a lack of leadership in helping communities tackle growing levels of homelessness.

"We've had a governor who hasn't been focused on what's happening under his watch," Heimlich says. "If you compare it to a corporation, and you're having these problems while the CEO is looking for a different job, you're probably going to change CEOs."

For similar reasons, the Seattle Times Editorial Board called for Inslee to step down and let other progressives join the race.

"Based on his comments last week, when Inslee vowed to continue crusading against President Donald Trump from Olympia, it's unclear whether Inslee is ready to step off the national stage and fully commit to clearing the backlog on the governor's desk," the Times op-ed states. "If Inslee relinquished the scepter, it would have a cascading effect on the political organization chart. ... That would spur healthy competition, new policy debates and a system refresh at multiple levels of government."

But many others supported Inslee's announcement to seek a third term. In addition to positive statements from Ferguson, Franz and Constantine, Inslee received support from environmental and progressive groups.

Washington Conservation Voters, which hasn't started its official 2020 campaign endorsement process yet, issued a statement lauding Inslee's work on the environment.

"WCV was proud to have been the first organization to endorse Jay Inslee for Governor in 2012," CEO Joan Crooks said in a written statement. "Over the last six years, his tireless work has helped make Washington a leader in the fight against climate change and has built healthier communities across our state."

Indeed, Inslee positioned himself as the presidential contender most focused on addressing climate change, pointing in part to his work in Washington and in Congress.

During this year's legislative session, he helped push the most progressive climate policies the state has seen in a decade, including successful passage of a law requiring the state get 100 percent of its electricity from carbon neutral sources by 2045.

Interestingly, the last three-term governor in Washington was Republican Dan Evans, who served from 1965 to 1977 and also focused on progressive environmental policy. Evans created the state Department of Ecology in early 1970, before the national Environmental Protection Agency was even created.

Inslee also helped push for a carbon tax or fee aimed at reducing pollution from transportation fuels, but both carbon measures that gathered enough signatures to make it on the ballot were soundly rejected by voters.

That's not surprising to Heimlich, who says the carbon measures' failure signals that voters are feeling pinched. While state Republicans support addressing climate change, he says there's also a counter priority of "making sure the government's not using that as a guise to take more of your money."

"There's a balanced approach. We certainly want to incentivize good stewardship," Heimlich says. "But we don't want to burden families struggling to get by with higher and higher taxes next year."

Among the Republican candidates who've announced so far are state Sen. Phil Fortunato, who represents parts of King and Pierce counties, and Republic police chief Loren Culp, who made national headlines for saying he'd refuse to enforce new state gun laws that included raising the legal age to buy a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21.

The state Republican Party doesn't endorse candidates for governor, Heimlich says, instead trusting voters to make the right choice via the top-two primary. That said, they'll offer candidates their support to make sure that a strong conservative can run against Inslee.

"We're very optimistic that on the Republican side we'll have a chance to provide a new direction for our state after 2020," Heimlich says. ♦

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...