The GOP Says Inslee Is a Terrible Governor. So Why Can’t They Beat Him?

How Trump and ‘donor fatigue’ set the Republicans up for a hard year in Washington.

As Bill Bryant contemplated entering the gubernatorial race against first-term Gov. Jay Inslee early last year, he chatted with Matt Manweller, a political science professor at Central Washington University who also works as a Republican state representative.

From Manweller’s conservative but professional viewpoint, Inslee has had a rough first term. He’s tried and failed, on several occasions, to make headway on his central issue, combating climate change. His Department of Transportation has come under fire for its handling of several Eastside highway projects, the furor over which led to the ouster of his transportation secretary, Lynn Peterson. Education leaders have been frustrated by the state’s slow work on funding the McCleary mandate, while the state’s mental-health system has faced defunding from the federal government due to deficient care at Western State Hospital. In December, it was announced that the Department of Corrections had released thousands of inmates from prison early due to an error in calculating their sentences.

“He doesn’t have a singular political accomplishment in his first term. He had a series of scandals—traffic was so bad that for the first time in decades the Secretary of Transportation was removed. He had the prison release. Nothing went right for him,” Manweller says today of the Democratic nominee for governor.

In addition, theoretically at least, the national political mood could favor a Republican. We’re coming to an end of eight years of Democratic leadership in the White House, which has a way of making the grass look greener on the other side of the aisle.

When Bryant and Manweller spoke, many of the worst headlines of the Inslee administration had yet to be written, but Manweller still had seen enough to consider Inslee politically vulnerable. And yet he leveled with Bryant: Things were going to be tough.

“I said, Bill, I think you’re going to have a hard time getting the same level of donations as Rob or Dino,” Manweller recalled, referring to the two prior Republican gubernatorial candidates, Rob McKenna and Dino Rossi. In politics, money makes the world go ’round. So what Manweller was really saying is that any effort to oust Inslee would be a tough one.

He says Bryant agreed. “He was not naive on this.”

And so it has come to pass.

Bryant, three weeks from Election Day, stands 10 points behind Inslee in the polls, which also show that Bryant is struggling with name recognition among voters—a dismal metric for a candidate running for the top office in the state. Part of this is due to Bryant’s low public profile going into the race—his previous elected experience was as a Port of Seattle Commissioner. But he’s also having trouble raising the cash necessary for a media blitz that would get him in front of voters (to date, Inslee is leading him by $5.5 million, $8.6 million to $3.2 million).

In a state where nothing comes easy to Republicans, it may not be surprising that the party is not in a strong position to topple a well-funded incumbent. Yet squaring the party’s defensible rhetoric of Inslee being a poor leader with it’s own inability to muster a decent challenge to him forces one to consider whether the party is a viable force on the statewide level.

Things look a little more vigorous for the GOP farther down the ballot, where Republican candidates for secretary of state, auditor, and commissioner of public lands are running competitive campaigns. But even there there are glaring holes. In the race for the state’s second-highest office, attorney general, Republicans didn’t even field a candidate, instead leaving Attorney General Bob Ferguson to run for re-election against a libertarian, Joshua Trumbull, who has to date raised $5,500 for his campaign.

Republicans acknowledge that this year isn’t a strong showing for their party. But they insist it’s more of a lull in the action than a death rattle.

“Hangover. That’s exactly the word people use. There’s a hangover from the drubbing we got in 2012. It wasn’t just bad because we lost, but because of how enthusiastic we were,” says Michael Harry, executive director of Mainstream Republicans of Washington. He’s referring to McKenna’s loss to Inslee, a race Republicans strongly felt they were going to win.

Rather than a headache or a hankering for a greasy breakfast, this hangover has caused donors to be tight with their wallets. “Donors thought, going into this cycle, that it would be harder for Bill Bryant to win than for Rob McKenna to win. And Rob McKenna didn’t win,” Harry says.

Adds Manweller: “At the end of the day, it turned out to be too large a hill to get over. Everyone, going into the 2016 statewide races, knew the donor fatigue was out there.”

From Harry’s perspective, though, it was a missed opportunity, given what he sees as Inslee’s continued struggles in Olympia. “If there was some mustard behind him,” he says, “I think Bill Bryant could be a very strong candidate against Jay Inslee, who has some flaws.”

Others aren’t so sure.

For all the negative headlines the Inslee administration generated over the past four years, it never fell deeply out of favor with voters, says Ben Anderstone, a political consultant with Progressive Strategies Northwest. This speaks to the demographic hurdles facing Republicans in Washington as the state continues a leftward shift.

“Inslee has had periods where his approval ratings were mediocre, but he’s never had periods where they were really bad,” says Anderstone. “He’s gotten a lot of ‘somewhat approve,’ ‘somewhat disapprove.’ He’s not someone to draw a very high level of emotion… . I think that’s been what Bryant has struggled with—making a case that goes beyond moderate Republicanism that Inslee should be kicked out of office. Especially [for] an unknown quantity, being a moderate Republican isn’t enough in Washington state, the way it used to be.”

“Maybe the lesson here is that if you’re a Democratic incumbent in Washington now, given everything in your favor, you have to really screw up to get kicked out of office,” posits Todd Schaefer, another political science professor at CWU. “Unless they do something really egregious of the economy really tanks, they probably won’t lose.”

None of which even touches on the 230-pound gorilla in the room, Donald J. Trump.

The Republican Party in Washington seems to be split into three camps: those who truly support the candidate; those who begrudgingly support him either out of party loyalty or hatred of Hillary Clinton; and those who fear he’s a bull charging headlong at the china shop that is Republican support in the suburbs.

Most of the party’s statewide candidates have committed to the final camp, disavowing Trump in hopes that suburban voters will split their tickets and vote Republican down-ballot. But Anderstone is unconvinced it’s working.

“You look at the primary race for secretary of state, which is a nice benchmark,” he says. “You have a moderate Republican facing surprisingly tough competition. Normally in a race like that, your Bellevue voters, your Eastside suburban swing voters, would probably go Republican. But this year Bellevue and Redmond voted for [Democratic nominee Tina] Podlodowski.

“The Eastside is now a drag on [Republican] margins. A lot of that seems to be [that] voters out there that seemed to be swing voters aren’t even swing voters on the state level.”

Manweller agrees that Republican success comes down to a question of ballot-spliting. “It will depend on the ability for the Washington voter to distinguish between Trump and the rest of the Republican Party.” He adds that ballot-splitting does occur with some regularity in Washington, citing Republican Rep. Linda Kochmar’s success in 2012 in her Federal Way race and noting that Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in her district. Then again, Kochmar came in second in this August’s primary election; some wonder if that’s the Trump effect, clear and present.

Whatever their take on Trump, nowhere do Republicans think the party’s situation in 2016 is desirable. But it is especially troubling for Washington Republicans for the very reason that they had set their expectations low on the top-ballot races. By conceding the governor’s race, it left Republicans more energy to focus on maintaining or strengthening their standing in the state House and Senate (at present they control the Senate and hold a slight minority in the House). But if Trump has a cascading effect on Republicans, then even those modest hopes could be scotched. Furthermore, it may deal a blow to up-and-coming Republicans with designs for higher office in future races—the “bench,” as it’s known in politics. Democrats have seen this phenomenon play out on the national level in recent years, as brutal midterm elections have seen politicians once considered rising stars laid low.

Sen. Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island), for example, is talked about as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2020. Yet like Kochmar, he came in second in his re-election primary this year, meaning he’s playing catch-up just as his party falls into disrepair. “Plenty of voters are going to go with Clinton and Litzow,” Anderstone says. “But how many are going to be so turned off by Trump that they’re not going to vote Republican at all?”

Whatever happens this year, Harry says he feels good about the Republican Party’s bench for future elections. “In 2020, I think there is a high probability we will look back on 2016 and say, wow, this party’s fortunes have really changed,” he says.

But for now, it’s survival mode.

“Republicans this cycle, locally and nationally, just need to hold on.”