With 36 governorships around up for grabs in 2018, Inslee is charged with helping to turn those fortunes around as he prepares to lead the Democratic Governors Association.
Through the early months of Donald Trump’s presidency, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has attracted national attention as a leading Democratic critic of the White House.
Later this year, Inslee will step into a role that could further boost his profile and put him on the frontlines of efforts to tap into an anti-Trump backlash to reverse Democratic Party losses in dozens of states.
In December, he’ll become chair of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), succeeding Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy.
The DGA leadership role will put Inslee in a position to travel the country and rub shoulders with bigshot political donors, possibly fueling more speculation about a run for president in 2020.
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Inslee, who denies any presidential ambitions, has had his hands full in Washington state, where a bitter fight over a new two-year budget pushed the Legislature into triple overtime. Inslee signed a controversial budget deal this month to avert a government shutdown, but infuriated Republicans last week with a veto of a major tax cut for manufacturers.
He’ll take the DGA’s helm at a critical time for Democrats, who have sunk to historic lows in governorships. The party holds just 16 now, clustered on the east and west coasts, while 33 states are led by Republicans. One governor, Alaska’s Bill Walker, is an independent.
With 36 governorships up for grabs in 2018, the Inslee-led DGA will be under pressure to turn those fortunes around.
“Inslee will be taking over a committee that I think has something to prove, with very high stakes for next year,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan elections and politics newsletter published by the University of Virginia. “History would suggest the Republicans are overextended and Democrats should be able to make some gains.”
Inslee, who was elected DGA chair by fellow Democratic governors, is confident they have one big advantage headed into the midterm elections.
“We have a chairman that is incredibly effective at turning out Democrats. His name is Donald Trump, and nobody in American history is so inspirational to Democrats to come vote,” Inslee said in an interview with The Seattle Times and public radio’s Northwest News Network.
The governor is no stranger to national politics, having served 15 years in Congress.
But Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association (RGA), says Inslee and fellow Democrats are foolishly overconfident if they assume an anti-Trump wave will wash over governors’ races.
“I think Jay Inslee has his work cut out for him,” Thompson said. “In a lot of states right now Democrats are having a hard time getting serious candidates to run.”
Unlike congressional races, Thompson argued gubernatorial contests are dominated by unique state issues, making them harder to nationalize.
Fundraising is key
As for national ambitions, Inslee, who easily won a second term last year, says he’s not interested in running for president. “No. No. I have got a job to do, I like this job,” he said.
Kondik said the DGA position could mean Inslee’s face is seen more on national TV, but cautioned it’s no giant national launchpad.
“If he and the DGA help some governors get elected next year, those may be governors who maybe have some loyalty to Jay Inslee,” he said. “That said, I don’t know if it’s some huge deal.”
Previous Washington governors Chris Gregoire and Gary Locke also served as DGA chairs.
Inslee says he wants to help Democrats win gubernatorial contests because states are key to issues he cares about.
“If we are going to defeat climate change, I have got to elect some more good Democratic governors, rather than those who belong to the Flat Earth Society. If we’re going to get a Congress that someday will be more interested in expanding health care to people with cancer instead of taking it away, we’ve got to get some more governors. So I’m pretty motivated,” Inslee said.
In recent months, Inslee has joined Malloy in repeated news releases and conference calls with national media blasting Trump administration actions, including the withdrawal from the Paris Climate accord and efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Inslee’s work on behalf of fellow Democrats is in part a repayment for the DGA’s aid in getting him elected. In 2012, the organization poured about $5 million into negative TV ads against his Republican opponent, Rob McKenna.
A big part of Inslee’s job next year will be fundraising to air similar ads in other states.
Democrats are trying to close a persistent fundraising gap with their GOP counterparts. In the 2014 election cycle, the RGA spent more than $170 million, compared with $98 million for the DGA, according to campaign-finance data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
As so-called 527 committees, named for a section of the federal tax code, the Republican and Democratic governors groups are allowed to solicit unlimited donations from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. Both organizations offer special perks to major donors, inviting them to exclusive events with governors.
In addition, both groups have nonprofit affiliates — labeled “dark money” groups by critics — that do not disclose their donors. The DGA’s nonprofit arm is called the Center for Innovative Policy.
“They’re all doing this … It’s money for access. I don’t like it, but it’s legal and that’s what they’re doing,” said Richard Painter, who served as a White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration and is vice chair of the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Previous top contributors to the DGA with Washington state ties include Boeing, Microsoft and Amgen. Such companies frequently court favor with both sides, giving to the Republican and Democratic governors groups.
Duties of post
As DGA vice chair this year and its fundraising chair in 2014, Inslee’s involvement with the national group already has had him jetting across the country several times a year to attend fundraisers, sometimes paired with policy conferences.
“Part of it is actually getting some really good ideas, or spreading our ideas to other governors … and part of it is raising dollars at the same time,” Inslee said.
“I fly into some pretty pathetic-looking airports late at night to do this work, so it comes from a motivation that is pretty deep,” he added.
He said he doesn’t expect his role as chairman to take substantially more time away, noting the DGA has a professional staff that handles the day-to-day operations.
Since 2014, Inslee has attended at least 17 DGA events, from Nantucket to New Orleans to Aspen, according to his calendar and other scheduling documents obtained through a public disclosure request.
On March 22, 2014, Inslee was at a DGA fundraising retreat in Bozeman, Montana, when a massive mudslide occurred in Oso, Snohomish County, killing 43 people.
Then-Lt. Gov. Brad Owen signed a state-of-emergency declaration in Inslee’s absence. Inslee cut short his trip and flew back to oversee recovery efforts.
Two DGA conferences in recent years were hosted in Washington state: one in 2015 in Walla Walla, and one in 2014 in Seattle.
A DGA spokesman in Washington, D.C., declined to release agendas or fundraiser invitations associated with those events.
But The Seattle Times and Northwest News Network obtained itineraries for some events in documents released by Inslee’s office in response to a public-disclosure request.
That included an April 2015 trip to Los Angeles, where Inslee met with a representative of the Disney corporation and, according to a schedule, met with other Hollywood execs, including producer Lawrence Bender, best known for producing Quentin Tarantino films.
Inslee said he didn’t recall many details of that trip, but remembers meeting with the Disney representatives and others and discussing intellectual-property issues.
The governor said he understands why some are critical of such political fundraising events, and he knows some donors are giving out of self-interest.
“I think it’s a legitimate question, and it exposes why in an ideal afterlife we are gonna get rid of all private financing of campaigns,” he said.
But, Inslee says, the DGA is no different from other political groups that play by the law as it stands. He said he doesn’t let contributor lists influence his work as governor.
“I’ve said no to many, many people who have written significant contributions to groups I support, and if you can’t do that you ought not to be in public life,” he said.