Democratic presidential candidates Julián Castro and John Hickenlooper in Ames, Iowa, on Feb. 23. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)
Opinion writer

It’s sort of refreshing to see new candidates enter the Democratic presidential primary who can tell us not just what they want to do but also what they’ve done.

Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper makes his case in a slick ad:

Likewise, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee can boast of an impressive record:

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) don’t have anything remotely like these two governors’ records. If former congressman Beto O’Rourke enters the race, he’ll be hard pressed to point to legislative achievements. At least South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), formerly mayor of Newark, have a record of running a city.

At the other end of the spectrum, for better or worse, former vice president Joe Biden will have eight years of the Obama administration plus decades in the Senate to run on. (If anything, Biden’s problem may be the temptation to look backward and play defense on a record that some progressives think fell short.)

Conventional wisdom has it that the Democratic primary is a contest between moderates and progressives, but Inslee, on the progressive wing, and Hickenlooper, on the moderate side, have more in common with each other than each does with his ideological mates. As two-term Democratic governors, they’ve figured out to rack up wins for the Democratic base to celebrate while keeping the support of centrists, independents, the business community and even some Republicans.

Inslee won by only two points in 2012 and then won reelection by roughly eight points with a plurality of independents (who made up nearly half of the electorate) and 14 percent of Republicans, bringing along 60 percent of self-described moderates. That’s not simply evidence of electability; it’s a recognition of capacity to govern in the real world in a way that excites progressives and keeps the rest of the electorate and legislature from freaking out.

Hickenlooper achieved a similar feat. He won reelection by three points in 2014 with 56 percent of moderates and a plurality (49 percent) of independents. And though he gets the label of moderate, his record in many ways sounds like Inslee: He has supported same-sex marriage and gun safety, joined the U.S. Climate Alliance of states adhering to the Paris climate agreement and set aggressive state goals for reduction in greenhouse gases, opposed Trump’s Muslim ban, frequently sued the Trump administration and backed a hike in the minimum wage.

Inslee and Hickenlooper illustrate a truism: If you want to win support of Democrats for election and reelection in a reasonably competitive state, you have to find the sweet spot where you can attain substantial progressive gains, keep the state’s economy humming, and avoid gridlock and a partisan backlash.

If Democrats want to win as much as they say they do, they should invert the William F. Buckley Jr. rule: vote for the most progressive candidate (for Buckley, it was the most conservative candidate) who can win. Democrats also should make sure that the candidate they pick can then rack up as many wins as possible in a political environment in which he almost certainly will not have the House majority and a filibuster-proof Senate majority. To get all that, they would be well-advised to look for a Democrat with a successful track record as a chief executive. They’ll find that this criteria very likely will lead them to someone with all the qualities they seek: character, honesty/integrity, inclusiveness, vision and experience.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Hickenlooper’s entry reveals how moderates fatally misunderstand today’s GOP

Jennifer Rubin: Eric Holder out, John Hickenlooper in, but who has it all?

Jennifer Rubin: Watch out for the governors in 2020

Jennifer Rubin: More candidates should have Jay Inslee’s problem

Jay Inslee: The next president must make climate change the top priority

John Kasich and John Hickenlooper: Another one-party health-care plan will be doomed to failure