Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared Monday that he wouldn’t seek what would have been a historic fourth term as chief executive of the Evergreen State, a move that will set off a battle to succeed him next year. Under state election law all the candidates will run on one ballot rather than in separate party primaries, and the top two contenders, regardless of party, will advance to the general election. Republicans haven’t won this office since John Spellman prevailed in 1980, though Inslee himself only narrowly prevailed the last time this post was open in 2012.
Inslee’s departure ends an electoral career that’s seen both plenty of triumphs and some big setbacks. The Democrat first won office in 1988 when he pulled off a close victory for the state House, and he sought a promotion four years later by running for the open 4th Congressional District in the rural central part of the state. Inslee managed to advance to the general election by edging out Democratic state Sen. Jim Jesernig 23-22 in the blanket primary, a precursor to the modern top-two primary, but he faced a tough fight in the fall against Republican colleague Doc Hastings.
Inslee won 51-49 at the same time that, according to analyst Kiernan Park-Egan, George H.W. Bush was carrying the seat 43-35 over Bill Clinton (independent Ross Perot secured another 22%), but he had little time to rest up. Hastings came back for a rematch in 1994 and emphasized the incumbent’s support for the Clinton administration’s assault weapons ban, a vote the Democrat would acknowledge hurt him at home. The GOP wave hit Washington hard and Hastings unseated Inslee 53-47 at the same time that Speaker Tom Foley was losing re-election to George Nethercutt in the neighboring 5th District, and both constituencies have remained in GOP hands ever since. Another victor that year was Republican Rick White, who denied then-Rep. Maria Cantwell a second term in the 1st District near Seattle.
But while that disastrous cycle ended plenty of Democratic careers, Inslee was determined that his would not be one of them. The ousted congressman, who soon moved to the Puget Sound community of Bainbridge Island, announced a 1996 campaign for governor and said of his recent defeat, “What it showed was when you vote your convictions over political expediency, on occasion it's not good for your career.” Inslee, though, struggled to gain traction in a field that included the eventual winner, Democratic King County Executive Gary Locke, as well as Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, and he finished fifth in the blanket primary with just 10%.
Inslee then set his sights on a 1998 House comeback bid against White in a constituency that, per Park-Egan, had supported Clinton 51-37 two years before. Inslee, who had no intra-party opposition this time, was in for a difficult fight in a seat both parties identified as a major battleground, and White’s 50-44 lead in the blanket primary seemed to foreshadow another uphill race for the Democrat.
White, though, wasn’t as strong as he appeared to be. The incumbent had just gone through a high-profile divorce, and he feared that the third-party candidacy of social conservative Bruce Craswell would cost him some much-needed support. Inslee, meanwhile, ran ads blasting the Republicans for waging a long impeachment battle against Clinton, which proved to be a compelling argument that year. Inslee got back to the House by winning 49.8-44.1, with Craswell taking the balance.
Inslee’s second stint in Washington, D.C., went far better for him than his first, and he never failed to win re-election by double digits. The Democrat, however, decided to give up his secure seat in 2012 for another campaign for governor even though retiring incumbent Christine Gregoire’s weak approval ratings presented a big opening for the GOP. Republicans quickly consolidated around Attorney General Rob McKenna, who had scored a 59-41 victory in 2008 during an awful year for his party, while Inslee also had no serious intra-party opposition.
Most polls through July showed McKenna in the lead but Inslee, who resigned his seat to focus on his statewide bid, worked hard to tie his opponent to unpopular national Republicans. The Democrat, in one debate, responded to the attorney general’s declaration that he didn’t want Washington to be a place where a third of residents were on Medicare by saying, “Remember when Mitt Romney talked about the 47% that just weren’t sort of part of our family in a sense? And now my opponent says that this one out of three somehow should not have insurance.” McKenna worked to win over enough Obama voters to prevail, but he wasn’t able to take quite enough. Inslee instead scored a 52-48 victory at a time when the president was carrying Washington 56-41.
The new governor got a big setback before he took office when two renegade Democrats in the state Senate, Tim Sheldon and Rodney Tom, put the GOP minority in charge of the chamber even though Democrats nominally held a 26-23 edge. Inslee himself appeared to be a tempting target for 2016 after several polls showed him with an unimpressive approval rating, but potentially strong GOP foes like McKenna and Rep. Dave Reichert sat the race out. The Republican who eventually stepped forward, Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant, struggled with fundraising, and the governor beat him 54-46 as Hillary Clinton was scoring a 53-37 victory here.
Inslee had a better second term, especially after a 2017 special election put his party in control of the state Senate at long last, and in 2019 he joined a crowded presidential field. The governor’s would-be successors, though, found themselves waiting for months to see if he’d turn around and seek a third term at home, which is exactly what happened when Inslee ended his White House quest in the face of poor polling. Inslee went on to become the first three-term governor since Dan Evans secured re-election in 1972 after he scored an easy 57-43 victory over far-right foe Loren Culp, a former small-town police chief who refused to recognize his landslide loss.