By Joel Connelly, Paul Queary and Fred Jarrett
A New Face? Please?
U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee took a capital-sized risk in 2012, resigning early from his seat in Congress to run for Governor back home in Washington. The big guy had enjoyed an up-and-down political career and had run a distant third in a previous bid for the state’s top job.
Inslee was mightily rewarded with three terms in the governor’s mansion and opportunities to legislate action on his urgent warnings of global warming and his convictions on the need for gun responsibility. The former Selah, Washington, city attorney even mounted a brief bid for the White House.
The question for 2024: Is there a similar risk taker? We know two achieving Democratic officeholders, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and State Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, are likely to square off in next year’s primary and possibly produce a Democrat-vs.-Democrat contest come November. Ferguson repeatedly took the Trump Administration to court, thwarting its agenda, while Franz delivered prescient statewide warnings of rising fire danger due to climate change.
Any Republican candidate faces an enormous head wind, the huge Democratic majorities coming out of populous King County. Sen. Maria Cantwell barely captured her seat in 2000 with a 150,000-vote majority in the state’s population center. Seatmate Patty Murray took it by 400,000 votes last November.
Upward mobility in our state’s politics has been blocked for years. Our state’s two senators have served together for more than two decades, reminiscent of the 28-year collaboration of the “gold dust twins” Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson. Inslee has held onto support from all factions of an increasingly dominant Democratic Party.
The Republican “bench” of prospective candidates is pretty bare. The party’s 2020 ticket was its weakest since the governor’s office and attorney general’s job came open in 2012. A pair of also-rans from the 2020 primary, both from Eastern Washington, say they are thinking of making a run. The party’s last nominee, Loren Culp, has reportedly found a new job managing the Klickitat County jail.
So, the first question asked here: Is there a new face out there, say a still-youthful technology mogul willing to spend a bundle and risk the embarrassment of not making the November 2024 ballot? Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin would be a model. A second query: Is there a winning conservative issue out there, such as the education and parents’ rights cause which fueled Youngkin’s upset of favored Democrat Terry McAuliffe?
Such a galvanizing battle call is hard to imagine at the moment. The Republicans have sought, without success, to exploit crime and homelessness in Seattle. They had hopes in 2020 that angry voters would roll back the sex-education curriculum approved by the Legislature. But sex-ed carried the day in Olympia, and Seattle bashing has been a loser.
A Democrat has occupied our governor’s office since 1984, and the Oregon governor’s office since 1986, the longest winning records in America. With an open governor’s seat, Oregon was supposedly a land of GOP opportunity last fall, given crime and chaos in Portland. Instead, the Democrats elected their fifth consecutive governor.
Some Surprise Scenarios
Editor’s Note: This contribution first appeared in the author’s Washington Observer.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s campaign launch video for the governorship plays like one long progressive mic drop, highlighting wins on reproductive rights, gun control, and various fights with the Trump Administration. There’s a reason a crusading attorney general is always a solid candidate for governor.
Along with his sizable war chest, favorable poll numbers, and a growing list of endorsements from Democratic officeholders, the video had a clear message for others contemplating the soon-to-be-vacant governor’s mansion: All y’all get out of my way. This is Ferguson growing himself a giant blackberry bramble to protect his left flank.
So let’s just dispense with the predictable-but-boring scenario up front: Ferguson cruises past Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz — who isn’t technically in yet but had a long drum roll going on Twitter — in next year’s August primary before strapping a 10-point beating on a Republican to be Named Later in November. Yawn.
Ferguson would certainly enjoy that, as would the many Democratic politicians and progressive interest groups who are already on the bandwagon.
But we like a real throw-down, so we’re going to look at some ways we might be paying more attention to politics than the baseball pennant race in the fall of 2024.
Scenario 1: Republicans implode; Ferguson vs. Franz
All but one of these scenarios require the GOP to flame out in the primary, which seems plausible in the coming cycle. With Donald Trump still stinking up the top of the ticket, prominent Republicans like Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier will take a pass, which could lead to a clown car of wannabes on the right.
In 2020, Inslee got slightly more than 50 percent of the primary vote, while Loren Culp edged out four other candidates on the right with less than 18 percent. It’s easy to imagine next year’s version of Culp¹ running third behind Ferguson and Franz because a competitive primary will draw in more voters from the left.
How would that race play out? Franz’s stump speech is super high-level, designed to play in Sedro-Wooley and Selah, not just in Seattle. Her office’s responsibility for the state’s wildfire response routinely takes her to places most Democrats fear to tread. So could she attract votes from the right in this scenario?
We have two recent data points on that question, the 2020 Democrat-on-Democrat contest for lieutenant governor, pitting then-U.S. Rep. Denny Heck against state Sen. Marko Liias; and last year’s race for Secretary of State, which featured sort-of-incumbent Democrat Steve Hobbs against Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson, who ran as a nonpartisan. The moderate Heck handily dispatched the more progressive Liias, while Anderson put a real scare into Hobbs.
Franz could concede Ferguson his stronghold on the left and appeal both to the center and to younger and female voters who might be inclined to say, “Enough with the middle-aged white dudes already.” That’s an interesting needle-threading exercise that could be hard to pull off.
Also, crusading attorneys general aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Franz could wind up the beneficiary of an independent campaign from the business community coming after Ferguson on the Seattle area’s problems with homelessness, crime, and drug abuse. Way back in the day, running against Seattle was the winning playbook for statewide Republicans. Could it work for a Democrat in a one-party race?
Scenario 2: GOP meltdown + the draft-Mullet movement
A broad swath of the business establishment in the state looks at Ferguson and feels something along the spectrum between apprehension and alarm. Traditionally, that establishment — and more importantly, its money — has backed Republicans.
But with the GOP likely doomed to lose, the business establishment needs another horse: Enter, perhaps, famously moderate and business-friendly state Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Isssaquah, who’s openly mulling a run.
Mullet hasn’t been afraid to tangle with the progressive left, both in the halls of Olympia and on the campaign trail. In 2020, he defended his 5th District seat in East King County against a challenger from the left and an avalanche of money from public-sector labor unions looking to oust him.
More importantly, Mullet’s one of the few Democrats likely to draw the wholehearted support of the state’s deep-pocketed business PACs, who were there for him in 2020.
It’s hard to imagine Mullet finishing ahead of Ferguson in the primary. But if the two men advance to the final round, Mullet would benefit from strong antipathy for Ferguson on the right. Meanwhile, his extensive bipartisan dealmaking in the Legislature would likely net him some key endorsements in red parts of the state.
Scenario 3: The political rebirth of JHB
This is the scenario in which Washington Republicans reject the grifter schtick of Donald Trump, Loren Culp, and Joe Kent and re-embrace a formerly favored daughter of the party, recently ousted U.S. Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler.
The folks over at The Dispatch wrote extensively about JHB’s quest last year to hold onto her seat after her principled vote to impeach Donald Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection. A while back they also floated the idea that she might run for governor, and we’re told she’s been talking with major donors about doing just that.
Superficially, this has to be an attractive idea for principled conservatives looking to pry their party away from the MAGA zealots. Had JHB survived a crowded primary last year, she would have easily held her 3rd District seat in Southwest Washington. As a statewide candidate, she could appeal to right-of-center voters in the Puget Sound suburbs.
However, she was last seen finishing third in the primary on her home ground. And she likely gets caught in an ideological vise if she makes it through the primary. The wrath of the Trumpists isn’t going anywhere, which could erode her support on the right. Meanwhile, although she’s a moderate by contemporary GOP standards on some issues, she’s an anti-abortion hardliner, which would likely sink her in King County in the post-Dobbs world.
The JHB scenario is probably the path to the least-lopsided loss for Republicans, but an L is an L.
And Some Campaign Funding Issues
I serve as chair of the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, the 50-year-old agency regulating Washington State political disclosures about campaign finances, lobbyist spending, and public official and candidate financial affairs. The Commission enables campaigns to register and report their contributions and expenditures, and enforces violations of the state’s campaign-reporting rules.
This year, there’s a new twist involving “surplus funds.” When candidates run for office, they seek contributions to pay campaign expenses. In Washington, campaigns disclose the individual contributors, their addresses and employers, as well as the amount contributed. The amount contributed is limited based on the office the candidate seeks, to protect “against the disproportionate influence and control of certain individuals and organizations over the election of public officials.”
At the end of the campaign, moneys remaining in the campaign’s accounts are termed “surplus” and may be used for other purposes – for example office expenses, travel related to the officeholders’ responsibilities, but excluding personal benefits. These moneys can also be used to fund future campaigns for the same office, the assumption being that the contributors intended their contributions be used for that purpose.
If, however, a candidate chooses to run for a different office, the surplus funds cannot be directly deposited into that new campaign. Instead, the candidate must contact the contributor and ask permission to transfer the contribution to the new campaign as the contributor purportedly didn’t know their contribution would be used for that purpose. Typically, campaigns start with the last contribution received and work backwards obtaining permission until no surplus funds remain.
Recently, petitioners asked the PDC “do these transfers require disclosure of the contributor permitting the transfer and do those transfers limit the contributions of that contributor to the new campaign?” In other words, does a limit of $1,000 per campaign apply to only the new campaign, or does the limit apply to both the new campaign and the surplus transfer? Petitioners argue that contributors conceivably could get around the $1,000 limit by contributing $1,000 to each campaign, thus doubling the permissible contribution.
The contrary view treats the original campaign as an entirely separate event and the transfer as a single, undifferentiated transfer just like the case of another run for the same office.
That Gov. Jay Inslee’s long incumbency blocked upward mobility for officeholders makes surplus funds particularly important for this cycle. In many cases, officeholders remained in office raising campaign funds through relatively uncompetitive campaigns, waiting for an opening in higher office. Some of these potential candidates have extensive surplus funds and would like to use them for their next campaign, but also want to go back to their supporters for more help. Other candidates see those surplus funds as a disadvantage for their campaigns.
On May 11, the PDC will hold a special meeting to choose between those two perspectives. Other issues: Should transparency be divided between the two campaigns or unified in the current campaign? Also, what is the importance of closing a potential backdoor for campaign contributions beyond the stated limits?
Comments to the PDC (firstname.lastname@example.org) would be helpful. For those interested, the PDC will stream on TVW at 9:30 on May 11. I look forward to your virtual presence.