Starting gun for a marathon governor's race

Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna are strong enough candidates to be clearing out the field. But one Democrat could still confound the front-runners.

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Rob McKenna

Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna are strong enough candidates to be clearing out the field. But one Democrat could still confound the front-runners.

With Gov. Chris Gregoire out of the gubernatorial race (as expected), let’s review who’s in it, who isn’t (and why). And take a look at the one man who could step in and scramble the entire race.

Attorney General Rob McKenna has superb political timing, and this election is no exception. One illustration drives this point home (alas at my expense). When I challenged incumbent Democrat Gary Locke back in 2000, a Right Track/Wrong Track survey showed just 27 percent of the electorate thinking the state was on “the wrong track,” reflecting the historic strength of the state’s economy at that time. Twenty-seven percent was less than the Republican base vote. Foolishly, I paid the survey no mind.

Recently I saw a similar survey showing the obverse: about 27 percent of voters think we’re on the right track today. That's as good as it gets for a Republican challenger. McKenna also has eight years of statewide name recognition without being tarnished by an unpopular Democratic governor and state legislature. His major drawback is the “R” next to his name in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican U.S. senator in 17 years, a Republican president in 27 years, or a Republican governor in 31 years.

Money for McKenna will not be a problem. Nor for Congressman Jay Inslee. Don’t be surprised if this becomes a $45 or even $50 million  race, counting money raised and spent by the candidates, the parties, and especially the 527 “independent expenditure” organizations covering all sides of the political spectrum. Talk about growth patterns! Between 2000 and 2008, the amounts raised and spent by just the candidates quadrupled.

Jay Inslee has been eying this race since scrambling back to Congress in ’98. Being a Democrat helps, but not like the 2008 Obama election. His party dominates Olympia, and people are weary of its status quo. How would Gov. Inslee be different? He must answer that question convincingly to win this race.

Inslee announced just a few days ago, but a chilly review by an expected ally, columnist Joel Connelly, suggests a shaky start: “The rollout of Inslee’s candidacy came up short, and left the impression that it needed a lot more time in the oven.” This race will be under the lights for nearly a year and a half.

Inslee also stumbled (I'm assuming his people know he stumbled) when he suggested using the state pension fund to subsidize start-up companies. Venture capital is called “risk capital” for a reason. Raiding the pension funds of retired state workers to assist new (and ultimately, politically connected) companies promising no guaranteed financial return is tantamount to malfeasance.

But Inslee’s overall theme is sound: Jobs, more than anything else, are what people care most about. How to create them, or keep them here, is a good first battle between him and McKenna.

The other candidates who eyed the race, Senate leader Lisa Brown from Spokane and King County Executive Dow Constantine, jumped on board for Inslee. Aaron Reardon is locked in a spirited battle for a third term as Snohomish County Executive. But one Democrat has stepped toward the spotlight who wasn’t there two months ago: State Auditor Brian Sonntag.

Sonntag would be a nightmare for Inslee in a primary and a headache for McKenna in a general. He is, simply put, a Democrat who thinks the government wastes too much money. He proves his point with a series of performance audits that have properly embarrassed governments from the Seattle School District (for its Chicago-style culture of political backscratching), to the state Department of Transportation, which he noted did not include congestion reduction as a department priority (one would think it would be its reason for existing).

Sonntag, genial, gentlemanly and always approachable, is immensely popular with voters because he’s validating their belief that government is out of touch, overly intrusive, and way too expensive. But this has also made him the least popular Democrat inside the Capitol's ramparts. Legislators denied him the authority to do performance audits until a ballot initiative gave it to him along with a revenue stream to pay for them six years ago. Since then, the legislature has tried to choke off more audits by raiding his budget. The audits still come, but Sonntag’s authority is limited; he can conduct and release audits, but not enforce them.

Asked what he would do as governor, he gives a two-word answer: clean house. The “Olympia Crowd” that has grown like Ivy around the Capitol since the Booth Gardner era, would be replaced.

That is not a contrast that would help sell Inslee, who is only marginally less liberal than Jim McDermott, the last Democrat in Washington to lose a governor’s race (in 1980). But if Sonntag beat Inslee, what would McKenna do? All along he has sensibly assumed he’d be running against a liberal who was heavily indebted to public and private labor unions, partisan Democrats, and tax-and-spend liberals.

Sonntag is a clean break with special interest politics, and the interest-group liberalism that ties them all together. He would be the most transformative political figure in Washington since Dan Evans was elected governor 45 years ago.

Prominent Democrats are talking down the likelihood of a Sonntag candidacy, and believe they could bury him by heavily outspending him in a primary. Perhaps. But the race between Sonntag and Inslee would be a campaign between two Democratic parties — Pierce County (Sonntag’s party of the working class), versus King County (Inslee’s party of Big Government). Kaboom.

Is there any Republican out there who creates a similar contrast with McKenna? Nope. At least not anyone with the name recognition, compelling message, or access to money needed to mount a serious campaign. Most Republicans have heartily endorsed McKenna. Were McKenna to stumble, Port Commissioner Bill Bryant would be standing by, but the politically sophisticated Bryant knows there’s no room to outflank McKenna and no financial base to support a viable campaign with the AG in the race.

In politics, there are sprints and there are marathons. This may be the state's first campaign for the governor's mansion that requires a marathon runner's stamina and will power.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson

John Carlson is a contributing columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.