OLYMPIA — The last and only time Washington voters reelected their governor to a third consecutive term, Republican Gov. Dan Evans shared the ballot with President Richard Nixon, with both candidates besting their Democratic competitors.
It’s been 47 years since that election, and now, Gov. Jay Inslee wants to join Evans for three straight terms leading the state.
Inslee announced Thursday he would stand for reelection in 2020, less than a day after ending his bid for the Democratic nomination for president.
Speaking with reporters after a news conference focused on the Trump administration’s new Title X restrictions, Inslee downplayed the novelty of seeking a third term.
“Every governorship is different. Some have only been one term, some have been two terms, some have been three terms,” Inslee said, pivoting to talk about his achievements in raising teacher pay, expanding health care and pushing back against President Donald Trump.
“And I remain as excited and as in love with the state of Washington and as passionate as the day I walked into office, or more so,” he added.
Republicans in Washington hope the rare attempt by Inslee at a gubernatorial threepeat will present their own rarity — the opportunity to capture an office they haven’t won since John Spellman’s election in 1980.
The Washington State Republican Party has long criticized Inslee’s stewardship of the state agencies, citing various problems at the Department of Corrections and the decertification of Western State Hospital, Washington’s largest psychiatric facility.
To that list, Republicans have been hammering away at the cost of Inslee’s state-funded security detail for out-of-state political travel, and the governor’s absence from Washington while campaigning in places such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
“And I do think that has a psychological impact on the voters of Washington state, saying ‘he doesn’t really want this job, he was looking for a different job,’ ” state Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich said.
But the GOP faces its own hurdles. Republicans must reckon with the top of their ticket, President Donald Trump, whose tariffs and erratic behavior make for an uphill fight in an export-dependent, left-leaning state like Washington.
Trump in 2016 earned less than 40% of the vote in Washington. The last time a Republican performed that poorly here was Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign against Bill Clinton — a race where independent Ross Perot drew 9% of the vote.
Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said Washington’s strong economy and Inslee’s record over two terms, combined with turmoil created by the Trump administration’s civil-rights actions and trade war, make a strong case for the governor’s third term.
“There hasn’t been anyone who’s had a clear path to a third term in 50 years,” said Carlyle, sponsor of one of Inslee’s key climate-change bills that passed the Legislature this spring. But now, “It actually is constructive and helpful when we face more uncertainty than we ever have.”
Three-term governors are uncommon
In addition to Evans, one other Washington governor has served three terms. But Republican Arthur Langlie split his time, edging out a Democrat to win the 1940 election, and then losing in 1944. Langlie returned to the ballot and won the governor elections in 1948 and 1952.
Washington is in a small slice of the country where both of those scenarios are possible.
Only a dozen states have no limits on the number of four-year terms a governor may serve. Most states limit governors to two consecutive terms — either forbidding them to run for a third term, or mandating at least a one-term pause before they can seek a third term.
In the last 30 years, only 13 governors nationwide have won three consecutive terms. The most recent was New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was elected to his third term last year. Two other governors had the chance at a third term in 2018, but Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was defeated and Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, faced with dismal approval ratings, opted to stop at two terms.
Before Inslee, Washington’s most-recent two-term governors, Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire, both opted to step aside rather than seek a third term.
Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington, noted that Inslee, like a lot of governors, had higher aspirations. Only three other governors or former governors have entered the presidential race so far this year, but 11 ran in 2016 and nearly 40% of our presidents have been governors.
“Governors often go on to other things,” O’Mara said. “When you actually drill down to the particulars of the decision, it depends on the career trajectory of the individual involved.”
Inslee pledged on Thursday that, if elected, he would complete his four-year term, despite speculation that he could be a Cabinet choice if a Democrat is elected president in 2020.
Who else is running
While Inslee didn’t delve into the specifics of his reelection platform, he cited last week a quartet of key climate-change bills passed this year and said that issue would continue to be a priority.
“I’m excited about the four bills we passed this year, they are the best in the United States, but we’ve got some more work to do on clean energy, as well. We all have to up our game and I’m looking forward to working with legislators to get that job done,” he said.
Inslee said that “the progress we’ve made we just need to continue, in education, in health care, in transportation, in the environment, in protecting our civil rights from Donald Trump.”
Heimlich, the state GOP chairman, said Republicans plan on highlighting Inslee’s presidential aspirations and would continue speaking out against tax increases sought by Inslee and fellow Democrats.
Politics-watchers are waiting to see if any other Republican candidates jump into the race. Right now, the highest-profile Republican to announce his candidacy is state Sen. Phil Fortunato of Auburn.
Loren Culp, the police chief of Republic in Ferry County, has also announced and Anton Sakharov, a Maple Valley program manager, has filed to raise money for a bid.
Asked about Republican opponents, Inslee said simply, “I don’t think about it.”