For months, polls have shown Rep. Jay Inslee (D) trailing Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) in Washington state’s gubernatorial race.
While one recent survey shows a tie, we’re talking about a state that went for President Obama in 2008 by 17 points. While Obama likely won’t do as well this fall, no one on either side expects the president to have a tough race here. Washington hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1981.
Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) is retiring after two terms. Could McKenna make history?
“He’s not somebody you can demonize,” said Connie Partoyan, the former chief of staff to Rep. Cathy Mc Morris Rodgers (R-Wash.). “He’s worked hard for the state. He’s a smart individual. He’s established himself very well in the state.”
Inslee’s team argues that Inslee’s biggest problem is name recognition. Neither candidate is on the air yet. Once the campaign heats up, they argue, voters will turn towards Inslee.
“It's not surprising that someone who has held statewide office twice is better known than his Democratic opponent and benefitting from that in early public polls,” said Democratic Governors Association spokesman Mark Giangreco.
To that end, some have argued that Inslee should retire from the House to focus on the campaign instead of trying to win the state while working 3,000 miles away.
But McKenna and his supporters point out his substantial lead with independents, even in the Public Policy Polling survey that showed the two tied and about even in name recognition.
McKenna emphasizes job creation and education — where he actually wants to increase funding, not cut it. He says he’s “talking about the right issues.”
Democrats want to talk about some other stuff. Gregoire recently signed gay marriage into law in the state; McKenna opposes gay marriage (but supports civil unions). He’s part of a lawsuit to repeal the Affordable Care Act and he’s challenging a court decision on logging road pollution.
McKenna argues that a ballot referendum on the gay marriage law will be “a wash,” because it will motivate voters on both sides. On regulation and workers’ rights, he avoids the confrontational rhetoric employed by some Republican governors and instead talks about compromise and technical solutions.
In the Boeing labor dispute that became a presidential campaign issue, for example, McKenna said he “would have remained steadfastly neutral,” and gave credit to the local Machinists union for working with the company.
He compared himself to New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R), another Republican in a Democratic-leaning state. “I’m a pragmatist,” he said. “I’m not interested in starting a war” with unions or anyone else. He decided not to endorse in the presidential race.
McKenna points out that he won in 2008 with 59 percent of the vote, despite the Obama wave. But he faced a little-known opponent in John Ladenburg. (“I’ve never even heard of the guy, and I vote here,” said Democratic strategist Frank Greer).
Polls suggest that both sides are getting their message out. Voters like McKenna on managing the state budget, Inslee on social issues and the environment.
In an election year dominated by economic issues, that tilt would appear to give McKenna a bit of an edge. But Inslee has been pushing his job creation plan hard. He says he can campaign and do his job in D.C. at the same time.
If he succeeds, Inslee too will be making history. A sitting member of Congress hasn’t become governor of Washington since 1944.