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Bryant got aggressive in gubernatorial debate. But did it work?

Bill Bryant, left, and Jay Inslee at a September debate. Credit: Nick Turner

To the extent that a state-level political debate — not shown in its entirety on any major network — is ever anyone’s big chance, last night was that moment for Bill Bryant, when he squared off against incumbent Governor Jay Inslee in a debate at Seattle University. If Bryant could knock it so far out of the park that ordinary people talked about it the next morning, maybe it would shake up a race that isn’t going his way.

To say that Bryant faces an uphill battle is something of an understatement: He’s behind 13 points in the polls against an incumbent Democrat, running in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1985. Add to it a certain orange-haired presidential candidate who routinely sucks every ounce of oxygen out of the political room and is forecast to bring dormant Democrats out in force, and the task begins to look almost Sisyphean.

Bryant began his debate performance on a road long-trodden by candidates looking to score points against incumbents: Name a problem, then say they’ve had years to fix it, and that they’ve failed. Preferably, the up-and-comer will do this at least once during the evening, with enough panache to be later packaged into a TV spot, played on loop for the month leading up to the election like a kind of incantation.

To his credit, Bryant stepped out on a few issues, albeit not necessarily in the direction many Seattle voters might want. From police reform (local departments can do it themselves), to safe injection sites (he’s heard from parents who don’t want them), to the minimum wage (he’s against a statewide raise), Bryant at least answered the questions that were put to him, if circuitously.

Between that directness and his willingness to attack, Bryant made a hit. But in a night where he often seemed to struggle to out-Democrat the governor, it was an open question whether all his force sent the ball hurtling over the fences or just arcing up in a magnificent pop-fly, catching a flash of attention but handing the inning to Inslee.

Inslee, for his part, mostly took the high road, responding with a distinctly Washingtonian insistence that he had in fact made progress. Really. He swears! From traffic to education to transportation and the state’s opioid epidemic, Inslee responded to attacks from Bryant by insisted that things had gotten better under his leadership.

The debate also presented a sight unique to Washington: a Republican who said he would prioritize roughly the same things as his Democrat opponent, on everything from social services to the minimum wage.

This made Bryant’s answer on the minimum wage particularly bizarre. Twice, Bryant repeated the line that he supports raising the minimum wage across the state. A key detail he added between repetitions: Only some workers need a higher wage, because $9 spends like $14 in Spokane.

His logic, apparently, was that some places don’t need as much (or perhaps any) raise in the minimum wage because their local economies are depressed — a tacit flag to conservative voters that he favors local control.

Yet rather than getting bogged down in the details, Bryant proudly proclaimed — twice — how strongly he favors raising the minimum wage, long among the greatest bogeymen in conservative economic thinking. Advocating for local control, of course, is often a way for politicians to hitch their wagons to risky ideas without alienating their base. Whatever the case, this time it made for good TV.

Inslee, of course, wasn’t without his own surreal moments. Attacked on the state’s school-funding quagmire — Bryant called his work “a plan for a plan” — Inslee had little to point to except progress on early childhood education. Asked by an audience member what he would offer working mothers who couldn’t afford to put food on the table, Inslee seemed to flail, naming education and a fight to preserve food stamps, waged before becoming governor.

Bryant’s debate performance could be read into the campaign he’s run so far in general: disciplined, practiced, on-message and on-target, and certainly not hexed by any terrible failure — but lacking the kind of headline moment that makes voters sit up and take notice.

With more than a month to go and three debates remaining, he could still get there. But if he’s going to challenge Inslee — a governor who, if nothing else, hasn’t given the average suburban voter much reason to actively dislike him — the former port commissioner seems to have a ways to go, and not much time to get there.

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