In the month since launching his 2020 campaign for president, Gov. Jay Inslee has struggled to poke his head above a flock of Democratic candidates. He’s remained near-last in early polling, with a recent CNN survey finding 73 percent of voters have never even heard of him.

That might seem unsurprising for the governor of a northwest corner state known more for producing tech billionaires than presidential contenders.

And yet the last Washington state politician who aspired to the White House, Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, did not suffer from obscurity.

Jackson kicked off his ultimately unsuccessful 1976 presidential bid in a position more comparable to Joe Biden than to Inslee.

“A lot of people thought he was the front-runner, or at least had a plausible chance,” said Robert Kaufman, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, who wrote a biography of Jackson published in 2000.

Separated by more than four decades, the presidential campaigns of Inslee and Jackson are in some ways difficult to compare. But there are similarities in the political climate.

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In 1976, as now, a large field of Democratic presidential hopefuls launched campaigns, including several senators. Weary from the Vietnam War and corruption uncovered in the Watergate scandal, many voters were looking for change in Washington, D.C.

America’s stance toward the then-Soviet Union was of public concern — and there even later emerged a whiff of Soviet efforts to influence the election.

Polls at the start of 1976 race showed more than 60 percent of Americans knew Jackson, who had served in Congress since 1941. The Gallup poll ranked him among the 10 most admired people in the world in 1973 and 1974. Ralph Nader’s Study Group had rated him the nation’s “most effective senator.”

(Courtesy of University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Henry M. Jackson papers)

As the state’s junior senator, Jackson served for decades alongside Sen. Warren G. Magnuson, forming a political power duo that wielded enormous influence for Washington state. Jackson used his clout, in part, to create large swaths of protected wilderness, including a 103,297-acre wilderness area northeast of Skykomish named after him.

University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Henry M. Jackson papers

Jackson, a son of Norwegian immigrants whose “Scoop” nickname dated back to his boyhood days of delivering newspapers in Everett, had been considered as a vice-presidential candidate in 1960 by John F. Kennedy. He was passed over, and instead led the Democratic National Committee.

He made his first presidential run in 1972, but his campaign languished and Democrats nominated Sen. George McGovern, who lost in a landslide to President Richard Nixon. Two years later, Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal.

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Jackson spent the years after his first run plotting his second, figuring Democrats had learned their lesson of nominating a liberal standard-bearer. He had remained in the news and even boosted his profile as a leading voice on issues including energy and foreign policy.

Declaring his second presidential candidacy on Feb. 7 1975, Jackson emphasized experience, saying he’d conduct a campaign “not of rallies and slogans” but “of proposals and issues,” The Seattle Times reported.

U.S. Sen. Henry M. Jackson speaks to a crowd gathered in Miami Beach, Florida, as he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. (The Associated Press)
U.S. Sen. Henry M. Jackson speaks to a crowd gathered in Miami Beach, Florida, as he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. (The Associated Press)

Staunch Cold Warrior

Even with his more than three decades in office, Jackson at 62 was six years younger at launch of his 1976 candidacy than Inslee, who turned 68 just before launching his campaign last month.

A staunch Cold Warrior and military booster who advocated a tough stance toward the Soviet Union, Jackson’s entry into the race was reported on by Tass, the official Soviet news agency, which called him the “henchman of reactionary circles of the military industrial complex.”

Sen. Henry M. Jackson signs a petition to support legislation for clean air as Miss Seattle, Dorelie Berg, looks on. (Kirk Roderick)
Sen. Henry M. Jackson signs a petition to support legislation for clean air as Miss Seattle, Dorelie Berg, looks on. (Kirk Roderick)

Like Inslee, who is running as a climate hawk and clean-energy evangelist, Jackson was concerned with America’s energy supply. But in the 1970s his worries centered on the U.S. dependence on foreign oil. He backed creation of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and proposed $20 billion in new U.S. energy production, including coal and shale oil, as well as solar and nuclear power, noted Kaufman’s biography.

Jackson banked on demonstrating his effectiveness to voters by continuing to do his Senate work. “I intend to spend the majority of my time not on the road but on the job,” he said. In the ensuing months he maintained a near-perfect Senate voting record even while campaigning.

He benefited from a narrower media landscape, able to become nationally known as a regular on “Meet the Press” and other network news talk shows, as well as on the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines, before cable news and later the internet subdivided audiences.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee hugs a family friend, Myrna Hume, after announcing his candidacy for president at a news conference at A&R Solar in Seattle last month. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee hugs a family friend, Myrna Hume, after announcing his candidacy for president at a news conference at A&R Solar in Seattle last month. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

“People knew he was substantive on the issues,” said Peter Jackson, the late senator’s son and former editorial page editor of The (Everett) Herald. But on the campaign trail, the stodgy senator didn’t quite connect.

“Scoop could not do what Inslee is very good at, which is distilling things into a 30-second sound bite,” his son said.

Peter Jackson said comparisons of his father and Biden are somewhat appropriate. The former vice president and longtime senator from Delaware is near the top of early 2020 polling even though he has not yet declared whether he will run.

“The parallel is both really put an emphasis on the working class, what used to be called labor liberals in the Midwest,” said Jackson. For his father, “that meant not marginalizing working-class Catholic voters, who had been 90 percent Democratic voters since the New Deal.”

But many Democrats in 1976 were looking for fresh faces, and Jackson’s long record on U.S. military intervention in Vietnam was not forgiven by younger, dovish voters.

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Miscalculating the mood of the Democratic Party

With a core of support from labor unions, Jackson scored victories in the Massachusetts and New York primaries, but his campaign stumbled and flamed out after losing a key contest in Pennsylvania to Jimmy Carter, the former Georgia governor who would go on to defeat President Gerald Ford and serve one term as president.

In analyzing the Pennsylvania loss, Times political writer Richard W. Larsen cited media fascination with the more charismatic Carter. By contrast, he wrote, “the rather plodding Jackson campaign style produced some negative attention, or, at other times, no attention at all …”

After the Pennsylvania setback Jackson returned to Seattle and suspended his campaign on May 1, 1976. “Simply stated, we’re out of money,” he said.

A screen capture of a page from The Seattle Times on May 2, 1976, after Sen. Henry Jackson had returned home and suspended his presidential campaign.
A screen capture of a page from The Seattle Times on May 2, 1976, after Sen. Henry Jackson had returned home and suspended his presidential campaign.

In an episode reminiscent of Russia’s attempted 2016 U.S. election interference, it later emerged that Soviet agents had spread rumors about Jackson, “sending forged letters to prominent U.S. newspapers and journalists claiming that Jackson was a closeted homosexual,” according to a 2017 Op-Ed by Mark Kramer, director of Cold War Studies at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, who did not suggest the effort was the reason for Jackson’s loss.

In retrospect, said Kaufman, Jackson and his advisers badly miscalculated the mood of the Democratic Party and nation. “Jackson had the misfortune of being the consummate insider in the year of the outsider,” he wrote in his biography.

That same year former, California Gov. Ronald Reagan nearly defeated sitting president Ford for the GOP nomination, running on an anti-Washington, D.C. message. Carter ultimately captured the Democratic nomination and the White House on a similar theme.

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Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington history professor who has studied presidential campaigns, said Carter also was a more aggressive, elbow-throwing politician than some might recall in light of his post-presidency reputation as a kindly statesman.

“Carter is a great example of someone, an unlikely person, who won partially because of the mood, but he also played the inside game really well,” she said. “He worked harder than anyone else.”

After bowing out, Jackson ran for re-election to his Senate seat, winning easily and serving until his death after a massive heart attack in 1983. A high school in his hometown of Everett bears his name, as does the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

In teasing his own presidential aspirations over the past several months, Inslee has sought to compare himself more to Carter’s 1976 run than to Jackson’s. Like Inslee, Carter was initially little-known; when he announced his candidacy, his home-state Atlanta Journal Constitution responded with a headline “Jimmy Who Is Running For What!?”

During a visit to Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics in January, Inslee paused by a photo of Carter, and remarked to reporters and others trailing him: “Funny, a small-state governor with no name ID became president of the United States. Isn’t that strange? I wonder how that could happen.”