U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, the seven-term Democrat from Bainbridge Island, announced Saturday he's leaving his seat to focus on his campaign for governor.

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By leaving Congress now so he can be “all-in” for the race for governor, Rep. Jay Inslee is betting he’ll gain more with voters than he’ll lose by not fulfilling his term.

The seven-term Democrat from Bainbridge Island announced Saturday he’ll leave his 1st Congressional District seat as of March 20 to focus his energies on his campaign for the governor’s mansion.

“This is a very rational decision,” Inslee said during a news conference at his Seattle campaign headquarters. “I’m not running away from something. I’m running toward something.”

Inslee has lagged behind GOP candidate and state Attorney General Rob McKenna in some polls. By giving up his seat before his term ends in January, Inslee frees himself of cross-country commutes and will have more time to raise campaign money and travel the state.

When asked if he was shortchanging constituents by leaving his seat empty, Inslee acknowledged it was a difficult decision.

“But I asked this question: ‘Where can I do most good for the state of Washington?’ “

Inslee, who had previously stated he would not seek re-election to Congress when his current term expires, said he was “going to leave everything on the field” in the race for governor.

It’s been rumored that Inslee, 61, might step down to devote more time to the campaign. But as recently as last month his camp shot down that notion.

Inslee said his decision was provoked by watching Republican candidates for president, during recent visits to the state, talk up “divisive social issues” and propose cuts to education spending.

But his timing appears carefully calculated.

By law, Gov. Chris Gregoire would have had to order a costly special election to fill the congressional seat if Inslee had resigned by March 6, setting off a scramble among the half-dozen candidates already vying in the 1st District race.

But by stepping down now, after the deadline, his seat will remain vacant until the November election, saving the state money.

Some political observers said Inslee’s move was inevitable.

“It’s hard to run for governor from 3,000 miles away,” said Matt Barreto, a political-science professor at the University of Washington.

As attorney general, McKenna has been frequently visible “doing something for the people of the state,” Barreto said. Meanwhile, Democratic candidates such as Sen. Maria Cantwell and President Obama have been leading polls in their respective races.

Inslee, however, has not kept pace with the pro-Democratic trend in the state, Barreto said.

The last time a sitting member of Congress was elected Washington governor was in 1944, when Monrad Wallgren resigned from the Senate to take office.

Inslee, a lawyer, has been in Congress continuously since 1999. He also represented the 4th Congressional District from Yakima for a single term in 1993-95 after leaving the Washington state House of Representatives.

“I look forward to hearing Congressman Inslee explain how 15 years in Washington, D.C., have prepared him to lead our state, now that he is quitting Congress,” McKenna said in a written statement.

State GOP Chairman Kirby Wilbur said Inslee’s decision was not really a surprise.

“He won’t have to take congressional votes this year on issues that might have blowback,” Wilbur said. But, he added, “I promise you I won’t let people forget he was a congressman.”

Barreto doesn’t see a lot of risk in Inslee’s strategy. “He’s telling Washington voters he wants to be their governor. He’s … quitting a job representing one-tenth of the state’s voters in an effort to represent all of them.”

State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said Inslee wouldn’t hurt state residents by missing any crucial congressional votes. “We all know Congress is gridlocked and not much is happening there,” Pelz said.

During an 11-minute address Saturday to the media and his supporters at his Seattle campaign headquarters, Inslee — wearing jeans, cowboy boots, white shirt and blue blazer — said his constituents would be well-represented by the state’s Democratic senators, Cantwell and Patty Murray.

His existing congressional staff will continue to provide constituent services to residents in the 1st District, according to Inslee’s campaign.

Inslee’s announcement is expected to shift the governor’s race into a higher gear. He vowed to travel throughout the state and “listen to everybody.”

Democrats have said Inslee’s poll numbers would improve once more people got to know him.

But the Republican Governors Association notes that a Public Policy Polling survey last month indicated the number of voters who haven’t formed an opinion of Inslee or McKenna are almost the same; 36 percent were unsure of their view of Inslee, while 32 percent had no opinion of McKenna.

Inslee is ahead of McKenna in fundraising, with $2.65 million in cash on-hand to McKenna’s $2.14 million.

But as a state official, McKenna’s fundraising ability has been curtailed. He can’t troll for campaign money while the Legislature is in session, which will resume Monday after a three-day break. McKenna’s campaign claimed it raised $140,000 in that brief window.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com.

Seattle Times staff reporters Jim Brunner and Kyung Song contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.