During his campaign for re-election, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee repeatedly has condemned a political foe as a narcissist and bigot who’d bring “hate” to Washington. He’s not talking about his GOP challenger, Bill Bryant, but rather Donald Trump.
During his campaign for a second term this year, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee repeatedly has condemned a political foe as a narcissist and bigot who’d bring “hate” to Washington.
Those insults have not been directed at the governor’s Republican challenger, former Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant. Instead, Inslee has aimed higher up the ticket: at presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
In political ads, speeches and interviews, Inslee and state Democrats have sought to make Trump an issue in the governor’s race — and they called out Bryant for his continued refusal to say whether he’ll vote for the New York billionaire.
Bryant says Inslee’s efforts to nationalize the contest are a transparent partisan effort to distract from state government failures, including the mistaken early release of thousands of prisoners and complaints over the launch of new Interstate 405 tolling.
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“The governor wants to make this race about Trump, and at the end of the day he has to run on his record and against me,” said Bryant, who has vowed to fire swaths of state bureaucrats if elected.
After November’s election, no matter who is elected president, Washington will still face traffic jams and a school-funding crisis, Bryant said: “Let’s deal with the issues that are affecting people in Washington state.”
Inslee counters that Trump is relevant, pointing to the New York tycoon’s controversial statements about immigrants and Muslims and his opposition to free-trade deals important to the state’s economy.
“Obviously, it [the governor’s race] is about our records and visions. But I do believe that the clear and present danger that Donald Trump presents to our state and our state’s democracy really calls out people of this dimension to face it and to back it down,” Inslee said.
Many prominent Republicans “have put country above party” and repudiated Trump, Inslee noted. That list includes Inslee’s 2012 opponent, former Attorney General Rob McKenna, and Chris Vance, former state GOP chairman now running against U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.
It won’t be all Trump talk, Democrats say. Inslee also plans a robust defense of his record. Last week, his campaign launched its first TV ad, focusing largely on Washington’s strong job growth over the past few years.
Strategically, Washington Democrats’ efforts to link every Republican to the top of the ticket are understandable. The state has not backed a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan.
And voters here will be filling out their Aug. 2 primary ballots against a backdrop of Trump and Hillary Clinton accepting their party’s nominations over the next two weeks at the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
Some predict Trump’s unpopularity could lead to a national wave of down-ballot losses for the GOP in November.
“Parties are meaningful … somebody who is turned off by Donald Trump is not going to want to vote for anybody else who is part of that team,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and former Clinton White House aide.
Of course, such down-ballot effects can go both ways, Kamarck noted.
In 1980, President Carter’s blowout loss to Reagan was accompanied by Democratic losses of 50 congressional and gubernatorial races, she said. In 1964, the defeat of Republican presidential nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater cost his party 38 House and Senate seats.
This year, likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton faces her own popularity problems, sinking in some recent national polls after continued controversy over her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
Still, Inslee and other top elected Democrats in the state have shown no reluctance to endorse Clinton and run as part of a national ticket. Inslee and most of the state’s Democratic congressional delegation plan to attend the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
By contrast, Bryant will skip next week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Trump is expected to be formally nominated as his party’s pick for the White House. None of the state’s Republican members of Congress plans to attend, either.
Christian Sinderman, a Democratic political consultant, said that try as they might, Republicans can’t escape Trump’s orbit. “Bill Bryant can avoid Cleveland, but he can’t avoid reality,” he said.
Some Republicans argue the down-ballot effect of presidential candidates has been overstated.
“The thing is, it hasn’t worked in this state,” said Kirby Wilbur, a former state GOP chairman and conservative radio talk-show host. “I think Washington has a tradition of splitting tickets if there is a quality candidate.”
GOP gubernatorial candidates here have outpolled their party’s presidential candidate in recent elections.
In 2012, McKenna received nearly 200,000 more votes in the state than the GOP presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In 2008, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, former state Sen. Dino Rossi, received 175,000 more votes than presidential candidate Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Meanwhile, even while losing statewide elections, Republicans have made gains in the state Legislature.
Nathan Gorton, government affairs director for Washington Realtors, said presidential results do impact down-ballot races, but candidates still need to give voters a positive reason to pick them.
“If you are hanging your hat on painting the other person as the candidate of their party’s nominee, I don’t think that in itself is a winning strategy,” he said.
Information in this article, originally published July 16, 2016, was corrected July 17, 2016. A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Bill Bryant as a Port of Seattle commissioner rather than a former Port of Seattle commissioner.