Why did McKenna fall behind in governor's race? | Roegner

The last time the Republicans elected a governor in Washington was John Spellman about 30 years ago.

They had a chance since then, but passed over Congressman Sid Morrison to support conservative Attorney General Ken Eikenberry. Eikenberry was defeated by Democrat Mike Lowry. This state prefers moderates in the governor’s office, and had Morrison been the nominee, it seems likely he would have defeated the liberal Lowry.

Republicans have continued to choose conservative candidates, which Democrats could portray as “ultra” conservatives, and they have continued to lose. Democrats have fielded moderate, smart, well known winners such as Booth Gardner, Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire, who were household names in voter-rich King and Pierce counties.

But this year has been different. None of the big name Democrats wanted to run and Jay Inslee, who represented both Yakima and Snohomish County in Congress, was not well known here — even though he had attended high school in Seattle.

The beginning of Inslee’s campaign was plagued by missteps and errors. Some key Democrats even considered finding another candidate to replace Inslee.

Conversely, Republican Rob McKenna’s campaign was textbook and rarely missed a beat. He had already won two statewide races for Attorney General. Most importantly, McKenna had previously served on the King County Council and always ran several points above the Republican base in King County. He consistently led in the statewide polls. Packaging himself as a moderate (a smart move) resulted in a minor conservative rebellion in Mason and Thurston counties. But by using his office to oppose the president’s health care plan, he seemed to pacify the conservatives. That may have also hurt him with independent moderates in King County.

Conventional wisdom in both parties, for more than two years, has been that not only is Rob McKenna the Republican’s best candidate since Morrison and Spellman, but that McKenna was so strong, it was his race to lose.

Democrats, along with their supporters in the teachers union, have historically been the defenders of education funding. Republicans have been perceived as the party of “cut everything.” But in making education a cornerstone of his campaign, McKenna co-opted the issue from Inslee and the Democrats. While his plan lacked specifics, it was a brilliant move and left the Democrats trying to catch up.

McKenna’s lead in the polls, the Democrats’ lack of energy and Inslee’s stumbling start may have also contributed to a key McKenna strategic error: McKenna allowed Inslee to define himself to the voters.

In pre-primary commercials designed to introduce Inslee to voters, Inslee’s campaign turned some potential political weaknesses into strengths. Inslee made serving in Congress from both sides of the state an asset, and minimized potential attacks as a “carpetbagger.” Even though Inslee is a lawyer and his record would be considered liberal, the commercials showed him emphasizing blue collar issues and a focus on jobs.

Republicans even acknowledge McKenna’s pre-primary commercials were not as strong.

Inslee had made a bold and controversial decision to give up his seat in Congress.

While Inslee took some political “hits,” it may have been a smart move. It improved his focus and provided additional time during the summer to right his campaign ship, while McKenna and his staff had some rare but well publicized errors.

Most knowledgeable observers still expected McKenna to lead by three to five points coming out of the primary. Inslee’s campaign was trying to lower expectations prior to the election. But in a significant surprise, Inslee led statewide, 47 percent to 44 percent. But even more problematic for McKenna, Inslee led 58 percent to 35 percent in King County where McKenna needed to be above 40 percent.

Since the primary, both camps have refined their messages and aimed their attacks on each other. The Inslee campaign has sought to redefine McKenna’s record as more conservative than his campaign suggests.

At the same time, McKenna’s campaign has raised questions about Inslee’s liberal voting record in Congress and whether he is out of touch with Washington state after so many years in the other Washington.

This election has been a classic for political junkies to study. McKenna is a good candidate who is more conservative on the issues than his campaign suggests. Conversely, Inslee’s record is more liberal.

Inslee had a higher threshold. He had to prove that he was a match for McKenna and a credible candidate. That was a test McKenna had already passed. Inslee did that in the primary. If Inslee wins, pundits will question whether McKenna missed a chance to put Inslee away before the primary.

A few years ago, Republicans “owned” absentee voting in King County. If their candidates were even close election night, they still had a chance to win. But with the conversion to all-mail ballots, the silver bullet in the election cycles has become the Get Out The Vote program. In recent elections, the Democrats have demonstrated a better effort. Also, Democratic energy seems to have returned, and now is on par with the Republicans. A big turnout in Seattle and King County seems likely.

If so, Inslee wins.

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