Running but not running: In WA, 'exploratory committees' are meaningless

Candidates for statewide offices are actively campaigning as they wait for Gov. Jay Inslee to decide his political future. But they're not calling it that, exactly, because: politics.

A photo composite shows, from left, Solicitor General Noah Purcell, state Rep. Drew Hansen and state Sen. Christine Rolfes. All three Democrats have recently announced "exploratory" committees for statewide offices.

People aspiring to some of the most powerful offices in Washington state are starting to take their political futures into their own hands. But, in true Pacific Northwest fashion, they are trying to do it in the most polite way possible.

In recent weeks, three Democratic candidates have announced they are forming so-called “exploratory” committees to run for statewide positions — two for state attorney general, and one for commissioner of public lands. Both jobs could be open for the taking in 2020, if Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz decide to run for governor, as they have indicated they might.

But those vacancies are expected to materialize only if Gov. Jay Inslee chooses not to run for a third term — something the Democratic governor hasn’t ruled out, even as he campaigns for the presidency

The uncertainty leaves potential candidates with a bit of a dilemma: Do they start their campaigns now and risk looking like they are challenging some of their party’s top leaders? Or do they wait for Inslee to make his decision, and miss out on valuable time to raise funds and build their campaigns?

"The timing is so unclear," said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island. "It's all really dependent on what Gov. Inslee decides to do, at least that's my understanding: People aren't planning to run against Gov. Inslee, should he seek a third term." 

Enter their creative solution: Form an “exploratory committee.”  Solicitor General Noah Purcell announced one for attorney general in April; then, on Tuesday, state Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, announced he was forming one to pursue the same job. Also this week, Rolfes announced she was forming an “exploratory committee” for commissioner of public lands.

There's just one problem: such committees don’t actually exist in Washington state’s campaign finance system. While federal law allows an exploratory committee in limited circumstances for federal offices, “In Washington state and local races, you are either a candidate or you’re not,” wrote Kim Bradford, a spokeswoman for the state Public Disclosure Commission, in an email this week.

By creating a campaign committee — a prerequisite to raising money — “the law sees them as a candidate for the office,” Bradford wrote. The paperwork Rolfes, Hansen and Purcell filed is identical to what any candidate would file as they start a full-fledged run for public office.

So why the wordsmithing? All three candidates say they want to signal the conditional nature of their campaigns. Purcell and Hansen say they don’t plan to run against Ferguson, if he seeks a third term as attorney general.

Rolfes similarly says she won’t run against Franz, who she says “is doing a good job” as public lands commissioner, a job that oversees the state Department of Natural Resources.

“They’re all being very polite, and they don’t want any voters to think they are running against the incumbent,” said Heather Weiner, a Democratic political consultant.

At the same time, things are getting to the point where serious statewide candidates may be at a disadvantage if they just wait and see what happens further up the ticket, she said.

“You want to get out there, you want to grab all the important funders up front,” Weiner said. “You want to grab the best staff — pollsters, fundraisers, consultants.”

Peter Graves, a Republican consultant, said Democratic candidates also probably don’t want to be seen as rushing Inslee, Ferguson or Franz to make a decision. He said that's something that could come off as — you guessed it — “not polite.”

“They’re trying to call it exploratory because they don’t want to look like they’re running when Bob and Jay haven’t made their intentions known,” Graves said. “You want to earn their endorsement at some point, so you don’t want to be the person who looks like you are putting the pressure on.”

There’s also some value to staking out territory a year before the 2020 primary to scare off other potential contenders, Graves said. “All of these Democrats are trying to get in front of the next person,” he said.

There are, indeed, others potentially waiting in the wings, particularly for the position of attorney general. State Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said this week she is “100% serious about running for attorney general if the seat becomes available.” Asked if she felt as if she might need to form a formal campaign committee, as Hansen did this week, she said it was “definitely something I am considering.”

Seattle City Councilmember Lorena González said she, too, has been “receiving strong encouragement to pursue the attorney general position” and will consider it, should Ferguson not run again. Port of Seattle Commissioner Courtney Gregoire, who isn’t running for re-election to her current position, also has said she might pursue the job.

Already, Purcell — who formed his committee in April — has raised close to $200,000 for his “exploratory” attorney general campaign.

Yet the declared candidates say forming a campaign committee early isn’t just about having more time to raise money. 

“If I am serious about running for AG if there is a vacancy — which I am — I want the opportunity to talk to people about my record of progressive successes as a legislator and a trial lawyer,” said Hansen, who was recently the prime sponsor of a plan to offer free college tuition to low-income families. “That takes time — it doesn’t happen in a day or a week.”

Purcell, who has never run for public office before, said he, too, has been focused on talking to voters about his record working in Ferguson’s office, especially about his work defending civil rights and protecting the environment. Purcell made headlines in 2017 for arguing in court against Trump’s first travel ban, which targeted travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries.

“I just want to start doing that as soon as possible," Purcell said. "It’s a big state, and there’s a lot of people to talk to."

Rolfes, the Senate's lead budget writer, said since announcing her campaign committee, people have started reaching out to her to arrange meetings and discuss ideas involving the state’s public lands. In her campaign announcement, Rolfes emphasized her environmental record, which includes sponsoring legislation that aims to protect orcas and prevent oil spills.

“I want to start having those conversations," she said this week.

All three candidates — Rolfes, Hansen, and Purcell — are subject to fundraising restrictions this winter that are tied to when the Legislature is in session, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. That's another factor putting pressure on their campaign timelines, Rolfes said.

Ferguson and Franz have not formed campaign committees — “exploratory” or otherwise — for the position of governor. But they have been raising money through their current re-election campaigns. If they want to transfer those donations to another statewide campaign later on, they’ll need permission from their donors, according to state rules. 

Like state lawmakers, Franz and Ferguson are subject to the upcoming legislative-session fundraising freeze. Meanwhile, one of their possible rivals for the governorship, King County Executive Dow Constantine, is not.

For their part, Republicans aren’t rushing to file for statewide races right now, in part because they don’t expect the same level of intraparty competition, said Alex Hays, a GOP political consultant.

Because of how the statewide vote in Washington has shifted toward Democrats, particularly in the era of Donald Trump, “we are lucky to have one person file for these important offices," he said.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.