Washington State has not elected a Republican governor in 32 years — the longest GOP gubernatorial drought in the country. It’s the fourth-most unionized state. Its teachers’ union, trial lawyers and environmentalist lobby are as strong as any state’s and are funding its largest super PAC.
So it wasn’t surprising when Obama carried Washington by a 17-point margin in 2008. What was surprising was that Republican Rob McKenna won the state’s attorney general election with 59% of the vote that same day, outperforming McCain by 19 points. No other statewide candidate in the country outperformed his party’s presidential candidate by as large a margin that year. If Washington State were a major market like California or New York, this astonishing result would’ve been heralded by the media.
After two terms as attorney general, McKenna is now running for governor and is ahead in fundraising, endorsements and most polls.
What’s going on? First, politics is about candidates. And even in this traditionally Democratic stronghold, McKenna is proving to be a compelling choice. His efforts as the state’s top attorney have given him significant name recognition statewide, and he has a record of successfully combating mortgage fraud, human trafficking and consumer scams that target the elderly.
His message is resonating with conservatives, independents and even many liberals. His calls for streamlining state government and reforming Washington’s lagging public education system have drawn high praise from a wide range of supporters. In fact, several groups that endorsed the current Democratic incumbent have crossed party lines to endorse McKenna over his public employee union-backed opponent.
His strong support for public education provides a path for other Republican candidates trying to connect to the suburban women voters who often decide big campaigns in states across the country. And one of his most repeated anecdotes — that state support for higher education was cut in half between 1985, when he was student body president at the University of Washington, and 2011, when his oldest daughter was student body president there — comes as a shock to a state that depends on innovation and skilled workers to expand its economy.
But the milieu also matters — and in an era of continuous annual budget crises, Washingtonians are growing tired of the traditional tax-and-spend attitude that the state’s Democratic Party has maintained for a generation. In 2010, voters shot down an initiative to establish an income tax on high-wage earners, 64% to 36%.
Washington has always had a pioneer spirit, and it could soon join the growing ranks of groundbreaking states, such as Wisconsin and Louisiana, that have said goodbye to their long-standing Democratic governors in favor of a new direction.
The race will most likely be a close one. McKenna’s opponent, former Congressman Jay Inslee, is attracting lots of out-of-state money from special interest groups.
Still, McKenna is a formidable candidate. He has crossover appeal among independents and Democrats, all the while delighting base Republicans and Libertarians. He’s also made significant outreach efforts to minority groups, becoming the first Republican officeholder to visit all of Washington’s 29 Native American tribal reservations and the first to open a field office in Seattle’s Chinatown.
The Republican Governors Association smells a winner, and several popular Republican governors and ex-governors — including Bobby Jindal, Bob McDonnell, Brian Sandoval and Jeb Bush — have trekked to the Pacific Northwest this summer to show their support for McKenna. Chris Christie and Susana Martinez will visit this week.
In November, we may see the mainstream media looking to Washington State to find another Republican governor with a positive message for his state and for America.
Patrick Ennis, Ph.D., has spent the last 27 years as a scientist, engineer, businessman and venture capitalist working mostly in the U.S. and Asia. He lives in Washington State and has donated money to Rob McKenna’s gubernatorial campaign.