Washington's gubernatorial primary election in August is shaping up to be a nonevent, with both major parties already lined up behind their anointed favorites: Attorney General Rob McKenna for the Republicans and Congressman Jay Inslee for the Democrats.
If history were any indicator, you’d expect a vacancy in the governor’s mansion to attract a scrum of well-known politicians, ready to duke it out in the primary for the right to advance to the November general election.
And yet even with Gov. Chris Gregoire’s decision not to seek a third term, Washington’s 2012 primary is shaping up to be a nonevent.
With more than five months to go before the official candidate filing deadline, both major parties have lined up behind anointed favorites: Attorney General Rob McKenna for the Republicans and Congressman Jay Inslee for the Democrats.
There has been no indication that party bosses conspired to get to this point. But Inslee and McKenna have carefully positioned themselves for years to achieve an aura of inevitability and ward off other credible foes.
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“Sometimes primaries are good, and sometimes they are not necessary,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz, adding that he’d “look askance” at any Democrat who picked a primary fight at this point. The state party endorsed Inslee in September and has already poured $310,000 into his campaign.
On the Republican side, McKenna has long been seen as the front-runner even if the party hasn’t formally endorsed him.
State GOP Chairman Kirby Wilbur said he and other state party leaders recently notified the Republican National Committee that McKenna was the only credible Republican candidate in the race, clearing the way for the party to start funding his campaign before the Aug. 7 primary.
While Inslee and McKenna are certainly formidable — they’ve raised more than $6.7 million between them — some say voters, and even the candidates, could be better served by a vigorously contested primary.
“I think it’s a terrible thing,” said Reed Davis, a professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University and a former King County Republican Party chairman, referring to the lack of competition. “I think every candidate needs to be tried and tested before the general election.”
Sandeep Kaushik, a Democratic political consultant, said while risky if it turns ugly, a primary can be beneficial for a candidate. “It helps hone their skills and refine their campaign chops, to flesh out their message.”
Yet so far Inslee and McKenna face only token opposition, from six little-known challengers who’ve raised less than $14,000 among them.
Washington’s last three open-seat gubernatorial contests have produced contested primaries for at least one party — and usually both.
• In 2004, with two-term Gov. Gary Locke leaving office, Gregoire, then state attorney general, faced an at-times testy Democratic primary fight with King County Executive Ron Sims. Former Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge also stepped into the race for a while before dropping out. On the GOP side, Dino Rossi faced no major competition.
• In 1996, Gov. Mike Lowry’s announcement that he’d leave after a single term kindled primary showdowns for both parties. Locke, then King County executive, rose to the top of the Democratic field by defeating Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and Inslee, at that point a former congressman from Eastern Washington. On the Republican side, Ellen Craswell, a former state senator, emerged from a crowded GOP primary field that included King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and state House Majority Leader Dale Foreman.
• In 1992, Lowry had to get by state House Speaker Joe King in the Democratic primary, while Attorney General Ken Eikenberry edged state Sen. Dan McDonald and U.S. Rep. Sid Morrison on the Republican side.
But in the run-up to 2012, Inslee and McKenna have organized for years behind the scenes to clear the paths as the inevitable choices of their parties.
“Jay worked harder than any other candidate I have ever witnessed in really trying to pre-empt the field,” said former state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt.
Though Inslee’s congressional district is centered on Bainbridge Island and suburbs north of Seattle, he’s spent the last year or more crisscrossing the state to attend key party fundraisers, picnics and dinners.
For example, last year Inslee was emcee for the Clark County Democrats’ annual Jefferson-Jackson fundraising dinner. He was back again this year as a featured speaker.
“He’s a very engaging person. People have confidence in him and they want to get behind him early,” said Kathy Lawrence, chair of the Clark County Democratic Party.
Other prominent Democrats mentioned as possible gubernatorial candidates have deferred to Inslee, including King County Executive Dow Constantine, state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and State Auditor Brian Sonntag.
“It was pretty clear the party apparatus was behind Jay before he was a candidate,” Sonntag said. He said Inslee called him earlier this year to suss out his plans but didn’t try to talk him out of running — and Sonntag said that wouldn’t have affected his choice any way.
Sonntag said while he decided against a bid himself, it’s a shame if the August primary’s top race turns out noncompetitive: “I think it’s healthy to have as active and robust primary campaigns as you can,” he said. “The public deserves to know more about the candidates.”
Brown, who has endorsed Inslee, said she thought about getting in the race earlier this year, but, “It was fairly obvious that he (Inslee) had a fundraising advantage and had secured a lot of endorsements early on.”
On the Republican side, McKenna, as the GOP’s top statewide elected official, was a natural choice to be the party’s gubernatorial standard-bearer, said former state GOP Chairman Chris Vance.
“Kirby didn’t have to clear the field,” said Vance of the current GOP chairman. “There was never any serious question: If Rob ran he was obviously the person with the best chance to be elected governor.”
Vance tried to defuse primary fights among Republicans when he was chairman, believing they sapped party unity and resources.
Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant has continued to say he’s thinking about getting in the race, but party leaders have urged him instead to consider a challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell. So far, Cantwell’s only challenger is first-term state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, leaving the Senate race potentially the second major statewide contest with no significant primary.
In an email, Bryant, who runs an international trade consulting firm, did not clear up his intentions, but said, “People are encouraging me to step aside from my company and serve our state and nation full time.”
Berendt, the former Democratic chairman, speculated that the lousy economy, shrunken state budgets and cranky voters might be making the governor’s seat unappealing to would-be contenders.
“The politics of the time has just made this really undesirable. There is an ambition deficit going on,” he said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.