The most difficult operation in the practice of politics is the head transplant. Its challenge is to maintain power with a new leader, to not be saddled with sins of the departed leader, and to refresh the image of a ruling party.
The dominant Democrats of Washington face the challenge with the pending exit of three-term Gov. Jay Inslee. The Evergreen State is a “blue” domain but the last two open contests for governor, in 2004 and 2012, have featured tight races. The 2004 election of Christine Gregoire was adjudicated in court, ending with her 133-vote margin over Dino Rossi.
The Northwest has witnessed two attempted head transplants of late. After 16 years of Democratic governors, Montana witnessed a Republican sweep in 2020. Only one Democrat remains in statewide office, Sen. Jon Tester, who is a top GOP target this year.
Up north, the departure of popular British Columbia Premier John Horgan went smoothly. Successor David Eby had no competition within his caucus. He has taken on the province’s housing crisis and moved selectively to protect the province’s remaining old growth forests. Eby will face voters soon, with the opposition divided and in disarray.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is getting shopworn. He is stridently partisan, focused on one major policy field — climate change — and not strongly staffed. Ex-chief of staff Joby Shibomura, one person who brought discipline to the Big Guy, has been brought back on board for his last year in office.
Rarely did a day go by this past summer and fall without a Tweet announcing that another Democratic interest group was endorsing the gubernatorial bid of Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Fergy vaccumed up early support from national and local greens, the abortion rights lobby, multiple unions, as well as district Democrats — the latest last week from Yakima County D’s.
He’s earned it. Nobody in state politics works harder than Ferguson. He takes on big targets, winning national recognition with a successful legal challenge to the first Trump Muslim travel ban. He successfully held out for more money in an AG’s settlement with the Sackler family, manufacturers of OxyContin. He caught the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. laundering money in its campaign to block an initiative requiring the labeling of genetically modified foods. He has sued Monsanto over PCBs in the Duwamish. He forced owners of the Motel 6 chain to stop giving information on Latino guests to ICE agents.
Yet, in early polling on the race by the Northwest Progressive Institute — which retains first rate pollsters — Fergy is not setting the world on fire. One Republican challenger, ex-U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, is showing strength.
Washington and North Carolina will have the highest profile elections for governor in 2024. Early indications, notably a profile-boosting Politico piece, indicate Republicans will put resources into the race. They’ll have to: Ferguson had already raised $5.6 million by the beginning of the year, and Reichert trailed at $1.2 million.
No conversation with Dave Reichert is complete without Dave throwing in that he was once a sheriff. He is avuncular and showed off an old hostage-negotiator’s skills whenever liberal-left protest delegations descended on his office. Courtesy can defuse anger. When targeted by Democrats, he was guided by a first-rate chief of staff in Mike Shields, a future chief of staff at the Republican National Committee.
Reichert retired from Congress in 2018, not concealing his dislike of Donald Trump. The decision was hastened when 700 anti-Trump protesters marched on his district office. The Dems flipped his seat with election of Rep. Kim Schrier.
Reichert went along with his caucus and was rewarded with a seat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. On occasion, he showed independence and guts as when he teamed with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in supporting additions to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and protection of the Middle Fork-Snoqualmie River, the closest mountain valley to Seattle.
Of most consequence working with Democrat Denny Heck, he mounted a discharge petition to force a House floor vote on renewal of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, vital to Boeing jet sales. “Ex-Im” had been blocked in the House Financial Services Committee. The old sheriff beamed when Boeing staged a victory celebration, where a Yakima manufacturer who exports music stands praised Reichert’s cojones.
The entry of Reichert has disrupted other best-laid plans. An embattled moderate Eastside Democrat, State Sen. Mark Millet, hoped to come up the middle as a pro-business candidate promising a less taxing government than the Inslee regime. But the late-deciding sheriff occupies much of that turf.
The far right has fueled Semi Bird, a recently recalled Richland school board member and anti-vaxxer. Nine county Republican organizations have endorsed Bird. With Reichert in the race, however, it’s doubtful the Bird candidacy will fly.
The Republicans face a massive problem — King County voters. The mantra is that Republicans need 40 percent of its vote to stand a chance statewide. Lately, however, the state’s population center has delivered dominating margins up to 500,000 votes. The GOP’s 2022 Senate challenger, Tiffany Smiley, tried demonizing Seattle. A shut-down Starbucks was featured in her TV ads. That ploy carried Patty Murray to a sixth term with 57 percent of the vote.
Nothing the Republicans have tried in recent years has worked. They ran against the sex-education plan approved by the Legislature. Voters ratified it. A lineup of promising 2022 legislative challengers, stressing crime prevention and the Legislature’s police pursuit bill, all lost.
The approach this year is a moon shot of six ballot initiatives, covering everything from repealing the state’s new capital gains tax and carbon legislation, to parents’ rights when teenagers seek gender modification. Although Northwest Progressive Institute won’t show me poll figures, suffice it to say the modest tax on Washington’s wealthiest taxpayers is popular.
The new Republican state chairman is State Rep. Jim Walsh, a blustery MAGA man who championed the congressional candidacy of extremist Joe Kent in Southwest Washington. Walsh is onstage this week with Brandi Kruse, ex-channel 13 political reporter turned right wing mouthpiece, at a State Capitol protest demanding that the Legislature act on the six initiatives..
What’s to block Ferguson, then? The voters may simply find themselves more comfortable with Reichert and leery of the interest groups that have bet early, heavily on Ferguson. Inslee has run a very partisan operation, stirring opposition and a desire for change.
The state has America’s longest stretch of one-party statehouse rule: We’ve seen five Democratic governors in a row, beginning with Booth Gardner in 1984. The Republicans thought they could flip Oregon in 2022, after a similar streak. They couldn’t. Multnomah County (Portland) and Lane County (Eugene) provided the same dominant margins seen here.
Ferguson does need to offer his own platform of policies, notably far greater attention to education than shown by Inslee. The state’s rust belt, resource-dependent Southwest Washington, needs a more attentive governor. Inslee has ignored Pacific County Democrats’ crab feed, oldest contiguous political event in the state, while Fergy is usually found putting crabs on plates.
As AG, Ferguson was able to use Trump as a foil and an ogre. Dave Reichert is, however, hard to demonize although the Democrats are sure gonna try. As well, with Inslee’s endorsement, Ferguson could face a more-of-the-same, we’ve-had-enough line of attack.
One of the Republican moderates we used to elect to statewide office, ex-Secretary of State Ralph Munro, has long held that Washington politics can be seen from two viewpoints. One is the Space Needle, where every place in view votes Democratic. The other is Old Snowy, at 7,880 feet the second highest summit in the Goat Rocks Wilderness. It boasts vast views out to Eastern Washington and down to Southwest Washington. In these areas, Republicans dominate.
The Space Needle Washington has prevailed for 40 years, stirring impatience for change. There’s an old sheriff in town.