Washington Gov. Jay Inslee believes the personality of President Donald Trump will create the climate for a change election in 2018, and that Democrats will just have to focus on making the case that GOP policies are hurting middle-class families.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the new chairman of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), believes President Donald Trump will be so toxic by next November that down-ballot Democrats will not even need to mention him by name to ride a wave of backlash.
In fact, Inslee — who previously spent eight terms in the U.S. House — is encouraging candidates across the country to stay focused as much as possible on core economic issues.
“We need to talk about jobs,” Inslee said in an interview. “People will figure out for themselves that they have to stand up to Donald Trump. They’re doing that without us saying a word. That’s not our communications strategy. We want to communicate about jobs and the economy. The other thing just happens organically.”
One of Inslee’s three sons got married in Philadelphia recently. The governor had some down time while he was in town and spoke with this reporter over lunch. As he ate a pulled-pork sandwich and sipped a diet Pepsi at The Logan hotel, Inslee outlined his theory of the case for the midterms.
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He dubs it the “double-P” strategy: The personality of the president will create the climate for a change election, and then Democrats will focus on prosecuting the case that GOP policies are hurting middle-class families.
Not talking about Trump by name can be challenging. Almost inevitably, the lion’s share of the governor’s lunch conversation wound up being about the president. Inslee said that’s exactly the point: “No Democrat running for governor anywhere has to say, ‘Did you notice that Donald Trump has caused nothing but division, hatred and chaos?’ You don’t have to say that because he’s showing it himself. Our people are going to lead with an economic message … and we’re not going to be distracted by his divisiveness. … It’s not ideological. It’s just a rejection of chaos.”
There are 36 gubernatorial elections next year, including 26 in states currently held by Republicans. Because the 2014 midterms were so disastrous for Democrats, they control just 16 of the 50 governorships. Trump’s historically low approval rating of 35 percent, according to Gallup’s national tracking poll, gives them additional pickup opportunities.
“I see no reason that trend will not continue, unless the president has an epiphany or a personality transplant,” said Inslee. “And there’s no evidence of that.”
Inslee expressed confidence that Democrats can knock off the Republican incumbent in Illinois and pick up GOP-held open seats in New Mexico and Maine. He thinks Trump’s low approval rating will potentially put South Carolina, Kansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma in play.
The DGA is putting special emphasis on nine states where Barack Obama won in 2012 and where governors have a role in the redistricting process. Whoever wins in these places in the midterms will have a hand in the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional boundaries. That could make it easier for Democrats to win the House.
The special election in Alabama may offer a taste of what’s to come. With Doug Jones coming out on top, Democrats elsewhere will be emboldened.
Ralph Northam’s victory in Virginia last month gives Inslee confidence that 2018 will be a banner year for Democrats. White, college-educated women in the suburbs swung hard in their direction, rank-and-file Democrats were highly motivated and young people turned out for an off-year election. “Democrats are going to crawl out of their sick bed to go vote next year,” Inslee said. “The polling did not pick up this energy.”
Inslee argues that, if Democratic candidates can focus on rolling out policy white papers, Republicans will be stuck twisting themselves into pretzels over Trump in purple states. They can’t alienate the president’s base, but they will need to woo independents who are disillusioned with his performance. He points to Ed Gillespie, the failed GOP nominee in Virginia, as an example of the challenge.
“They can run, but they cannot hide from him,” said Inslee. “The Virginia race demonstrated that they have no escape hatch from this. They’re trying to straddle a barbed-wire fence. You can’t do it successfully.”
There are a handful of Republicans, however, who look insulated from anti-Trump backlash at this point. Polls show that the GOP governors in the blue states of Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont are among the most popular chief executives in the country. They’ve successfully threaded the needle so far.
Inslee noted that Robert Ehrlich was a very popular Republican governor of Maryland going into 2006 — he was even viewed more favorably than unfavorably on Election Day — but he still lost to Democratic challenger Martin O’Malley that year because George W. Bush was so unpopular.
“All bets are off in this situation,” Inslee said. “There’s no lifeboat here for them to get into.”
Inslee’s real frame of reference, though, is more 1994 than 2006. He got elected to the House in 1992 and swept out two years later as part of the blowback to Bill Clinton. (He returned to Congress in 1998 and stayed until he ran for governor in 2012.) The ’94 defeat was the defining moment of his political career, and he talks about it all the time.
“I’m not an expert in very many things. I used to know how to shoot a jump shot in the old days. But I am an expert in wave elections because I went through one in 1994,” Inslee said. “What I learned in 1994 is: You cannot escape being shackled to a president who is being rejected by the American people in double digits. You just cannot escape it. There is no way. Lord, I tried different approaches. I know exactly what these Republicans are going through.”
In Washington state, the congressional delegation went from having eight Democrats and one Republican to seven Republicans and two Democrats. One of the losers was Speaker of the House Tom Foley.
“These are referendums on the president, and you cannot escape that,” Inslee said. “You cannot minimize it. You cannot put on a different hat or a happy face. You are just tied to that smell. And that’s what they’re stuck with. There’s no soap that can erase it. … The guy [voters] wanted to drain the swamp fed the alligators instead.”
Asked to reconcile this with the Democratic civil war that’s broken out since Obama left office, Inslee replied: “I do not believe it is something to lose two minutes of sleep over, and Virginia proves that.”
Indeed, there was lots of bed-wetting on the left and second-guessing from liberal interest groups in the run-up to the election. It looked stupid when Northam won by 9 points. The lieutenant governor also faced a credible challenger from his left in Tom Perriello, but the party’s rank-and-file mostly rallied behind him after the June primary.
“The unifying force of Donald Trump cannot be overstated here,” Inslee said. “You can have the biggest ideological debate in the Democratic Party, and it will be forgotten in a nanosecond.”
Displaying a characteristically corny-but-charming sense of humor, Inslee said at one point: “The only person who is going to do well in 2018 with an ‘R’ behind their name is Jay R. Inslee.”
If 2018 goes as well as Inslee predicts it will, the 66-year-old could be well positioned to seek the Democratic nomination in 2020. He would run as an accomplished progressive governor from a state with a robust economy, who is not tainted by the dysfunction in the other Washington and who can raise lots of money. It’s plausible that he could emerge as a consensus figure who is acceptable to dueling factions of the Democratic coalition in a nominating contest that has no clear front-runner and is sure to be unpredictable.
On the same night Northam prevailed in Virginia, Democrats won a special election to take control of the Washington state Senate. Inslee hopes to capitalize on this during a short legislative session that starts in January. His priorities back home include reducing carbon pollution by incentivizing the creation of new clean-energy jobs, investing more in education and expanding voting rights.
Asked about running for president, Inslee smiled. “I’ve got two great jobs right now,” he said, referring to being governor and DGA chair. “I do believe this is a generational opportunity for the Democrats to advance progressive policies by winning governor’s races. I think it’s a 50-year opportunity, or a lifetime opportunity, given the combination of circumstances here. I know you’ve heard this before, but it’s honest: I’m focused on the job that I’ve got.” (This, of course, is exactly the answer that someone planning to run always gives …)
Inslee talked with me for close to an hour and a half — until his wife of 45 years, Trudi, came to the hotel restaurant to tell him that they needed to get going for their son’s rehearsal dinner.