The likely contest for Washington governor was on preview display this week, with Attorney General Rob McKenna announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination and the likely Democratic candidate, Congressman Jay Inslee (D-1st), charming businessfolk at the Seattle Rotary. Both were dashing for the independent center, a hard part of the spectrum for these two rather partisan figures to occupy.
McKenna, an Eastsider, has long been an artful presenter of his reasonable centrism while actually being a fairly conservative libertarian. He announced his candidacy with the themes of government reform (mostly getting tough on teachers' unions), more spending on education, and boosting jobs (mostly by attacking excessive regulations). In short: something of a U-turn from the Gregoire-Speaker Frank Chopp years of one-party Democratic rule in Olympia.
There's an inherent conflict in pushing for more education spending while being firmly opposed to new taxes; paring back government costs will only get you a little way toward restoring strong funding for the U.W., for instance. But it does enhance McKenna's appeal to independents and suburbanites, especially since, as Publicola observed, McKenna is basically hugging Obama's educational approach. Pushing back against teachers' unions scores points for reform and also puts Inslee's traditionally strong union backing in the spotlight.
Inslee appeared with Congressman Dave Reichert (R-8th) in a Rotary program designed to show that partisans in Congress can occasionally cooperate on some legislation. (A charming fiction, on balance.) Both are adept at playing this game, in part because their districts have lots of suburban indendents who are wary of doctrinaire partisanship. Affability aside, Inslee stressed his interest in boosting the green economy, his specialty. That theme will play well in highlighting McKenna's weak environmental credentials. (Education and environment are the key issues for independent voters.) Also, the green economy gives a way for environmental politicians like Inslee to stress the jobs benefit of the equation rather than the heavy regulatory part.
Reichert, in an interview afterward, quickly quashed speculation that he might be looking at a governor's race himself, saying firmly that he was supporting McKenna. He did admit that he was being pushed to think about a challenge to Sen. Maria Cantwell in 2012, noting that political life is a lot more attractive when you only have to run every six years. He also said that the way his Congressional district lines are being redrawn by the redistricting commission will weigh into his calculations.
Inslee would appear to have a clean shot at the Democratic nomination, with potential rivals (Dow Constantine, Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, Sen. Lisa Brown, Gregoire chief-of-staff Jay Manning, state Auditor Brian Sonntag) showing little signs of getting in early enough to head off a front-runner. Inslee will have to show his differences from the unpopular governor, but for now he has to be very deferential, not pushing Gregoire to announce her non-candidacy. He thought that decision might come in a few weeks, which would help him as he could then openly declare for the job everyone knows he wants.
Governors can be hesitant about such announcements. When Gov. Dan Evans was weighing a fourth term, in 1976, he delayed so long that no good Republican could emerge and the governor's mansion shifted to nominal Democrat Dixy Lee Ray. Gregoire has enjoyed a good second wind in these past two years. I can imagine her and her staff thinking about continuity, which could translate into a Manning candidacy. He is an effective staff leader with strong environmental credentials, and could seem something of a fresh face.
Most likely, we'll have a classic and very close race between two skilled and veteran politicians. In the end, the outcome will probably depend on how well President Obama does in 2012, and how much of his softer support rallies to him, casting Democratic votes while in the voting booth.