Locke’s Departure to Shake Up Wash. State
Washington Gov. Gary Locke’s (D) sudden, though not altogether surprising, announcement Monday that he would not seek a third term in 2004 has scrambled Evergreen State politics in incalculable ways.
Not only has Locke’s decision triggered wide-open showdowns in both parties to succeed him, but his departure from the political scene could affect the 2004 Senate race in Washington and alter the short-term and long-term political landscape in several competitive Congressional districts.
“There will be a huge domino effect from this announcement,” predicted April Gentry, a spokeswoman for Rep. George Nethercutt (Wash.), the Republicans’ leading hope to take on Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) next year.
For Congressional Democrats, the immediate question is whether they will have to defend a competitive seat they once considered safe: Rep. Jay Inslee (Wash.) is one of a handful of Democrats eyeing the gubernatorial race, and if he makes the leap his district on both sides of Puget Sound would be up for grabs.
In a statement this week, Inslee, who lost the 1996 gubernatorial nomination fight to Locke, said he is “strongly considering” entering the 2004 contest.
“I will be spending the next couple of weeks talking with my family, my supporters and people across Washington state before making the decision to run for governor,” he said. “This is not a time for timidity; the next governor must demonstrate the willingness to lead boldly on critical issues that will produce real change to get our state back on track.”
Inslee has never won more than 55 percent of the vote since being elected to the 1st district seat in 1998 (he also represented a central Washington district for one term before being ousted in the 1994 GOP tidal wave). Republicans believe they have a real shot at the district, especially if Inslee moves on.
“We’re in good shape there,” said Chris Vance, chairman of the Washington Republican Party.
The strongest potential candidate is King County Councilwoman Jane Hague, an experienced political moderate and popular figure in the Seattle metro area. Hague, who is also a former member of the Bellevue City Council, is expected to announce the formation of an exploratory committee in a matter of days.
Two more conservative Republicans are also eyeing the 1st district race: Roger Stark, a heart surgeon, has already declared his candidacy, and former state Rep. Joe Marine, who took 41 percent of the vote against Inslee last year, may run again.
If Inslee runs for governor, the list of Democrats likely to try to succeed him includes state Reps. Laura Ruderman, Phil Rockefeller and Mike Cooper, state Sen. Paull Shinn and Jim Frush, a politically active attorney who was the Washington state spokesman for Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000.
But while Inslee simply put out a statement in the wake of Locke’s announcement, two other potential gubernatorial candidates were far more aggressively seeking the limelight. Just minutes after Locke disclosed his decision Monday morning, three-term state Attorney General Christine Gregoire (D) announced she would run for governor.
Both Gregoire and King County Executive Ron Sims (D), who will decide whether to run in the next few weeks, were prominent on Seattle midday TV news shows that day. Former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge has been in the Democratic race for several months.
Although others could follow, “I very much expect the field to winnow down very quickly,” said Paul Berendt, chairman of the Washington Democratic Party.
The leading potential Republican candidate for governor is Bob Herbold, a retired Microsoft executive. But if he does not make the race, Dino Rossi, chairman of the state Senate Budget Committee, is the GOP’s likeliest gubernatorial contender. Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department Director Federico Cruz-Uribe is already waging a quixotic bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Rossi’s plans are significant, because he is frequently mentioned as a strong candidate for the seat of Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) whenever she moves on — she is expected, though not altogether certain, to seek re-election in 2004. Another potential candidate for Dunn’s seat, King County Councilman Rob McKenna (R), is now all but certain to run for attorney general with that position coming vacant. Rossi is just 42; McKenna, 40.
One disappointing bit of news for Washington state Republicans is Rep. Adam Smith’s (D-Wash.) announcement shortly after Locke’s that he would be a candidate for re-election in 2004. Smith was considered highly likely to run for attorney general if Gregoire ran for governor, and Republicans were salivating at the prospect of an open seat in Smith’s suburban Seattle district.
Meanwhile, both parties are boasting that Locke’s departure from the gubernatorial picture strengthens their hand in the 2004 Senate race.
Republicans in both Washingtons believe Murray is beatable if the right candidate comes along. But Dunn, who represents a swing suburban district, turned down an opportunity to run, and Nethercutt is hesitating.
Vance, the state party chief, said an open governor’s seat means the national Republican Party is likely to pay even more attention to Washington state. Already President Bush’s advisers have called Washington a target for 2004, even though it has voted Democratic in the past four presidential elections.
“It continues to help elevate the status of Washington state as a political battleground next year,” Vance said. “It helps to get the Senate [Republican] committee spending money when the [Republican Governors Association] is going to spend money, and the White House is going to spend money.”
But Republicans concede that they don’t have a strong candidate to run for Senate if Nethercutt does not. Apparently none of the potential GOP candidates for governor can be persuaded to switch races.
Gentry, Nethercutt’s spokeswoman, agreed that national Republicans would now be paying closer attention to Washington state but said the gubernatorial race is “only one piece of the big picture” for her boss as he decides what to do. She predicted that Democrats would have a hard time unifying behind their gubernatorial nominee, especially with the primary just six weeks before the general election.
But Democrats believe that even if there is a spirited gubernatorial primary in 2004, the party and Murray are helped by Locke’s retirement. That’s because several key Democratic interest groups, including teachers, labor and environmentalists, were mad at Locke to varying degrees. Now those groups are almost certain to rally around the whole Democratic ticket.
“It should energize the base,” said Jeff Bjornstad, chief of staff to Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.).
Several Democrats said Gregoire’s decision to run for governor forces the Republicans to compete for attorney general, a race they would otherwise have ignored if the incumbent had stayed put.
“For these statewide offices, their bench is very thin,” Berendt said. “They don’t have proven votegetters.”