When you talk with folks close to Governor Inslee’s political team, you don’t hear them talking like they are entering the twilight of a successful political career.
Inslee was elected to the legislature in 1988, to Congress first in 1992 and then again from 1998 to 2012. He ran for governor in 2012 and 2016, winning twice (though he came in third in the Democratic primary for governor in 1996).
By any measure, that is a successful political career.
And, by most measures, serving as a two term governor is enough. That is often the limit in states with term limits, and is a standard set down by George Washington himself as he left the Presidency.
So, there is some expectation that Jay Inslee’s career might be cruising toward “lame duck” status.
But spending any amount of time talking with Gov. Inslee or his team, one gets the sense that momentum is building rather than subsiding. It’s certainly possible that Inslee is done following this term, but if not, there are two key pathways for him moving forward.
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First, what he is unlikely to run for
The total list of things that might be of interest to any two term governor is small. In many instances, the US Senate might be one of those spots.
There is some talk about whether Senator Murray might step down from her seat in the Senate in 2022. But, Inslee has already served his time in Washington DC. That trans-continental commute is probably one he is done with, even if he was only running every six years instead of two.
But, who knows what Murray will do in four years time. And, after serving as a chief executive, becoming last on the seniority list in the US Senate probably is less appealing than it might have been a generation ago.
In theory, because Inslee is a lawyer, he could run for a term on the Supreme Court, but… why? While an interesting theoretical question, there is little justification for Inslee to join that body.
Inslee could run for the Democratic nomination for President
There is a truism in federal politics that if you ever have a legitimate chance to run for President of the United States, you should. It’s probably a part of the reason there were 17 candidates in the Republican field in 2016. Lots of folks saw a potential pathway to the White House.
Among the Democratic bench of candidates that might run for office, there is speculation about a number of names. The Hill puts the list of potential candidates at 36, some of which are more creative than realistic: Oprah Winfrey, Tom Steyer, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, etc. Others are perhaps both less creative and just as un-realistic, bowing to historical efforts rather than future ones: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, John Kerry, etc.
Jay Inslee is literally at the bottom of that list. Don’t be fooled.
The reality is that Inslee is making a name for himself nationally in the Democratic Party. He leads the Democratic Governors Association, where he is building a national fundraising infrastructure. He’s cornering the climate change and environmental issues, being feted at Davos by the likes of Al Gore for his policy leadership. He’s traveling abroad to burnish his foreign policy credentials, to places like Germany, Austria, and Canada.
If you were going to run for the nomination, this is the sort of thing you’d do. You’d also want to make sure you could elevate yourself vis-a-vis the president (done) and get on talk shows to improve name ID (the most recent example here).
Now, the campaign for the nomination is a tough slog. There are 99 counties in Iowa, where the ground game matters at least as much, perhaps more, than television. To do well there, you need to get at least 15 percent of the delegates of a caucus to accrue delegates that count. Of the 99 counties, 33 of them have the lion share of Democratic caucus goers.
Immediately after is a primary in New Hampshire, with a very different electorate from the caucuses in Iowa. Then, Nevada and South Carolina follow closely after that. It’s a tough gauntlet, and it’s only getting started.
Sure, Inslee could catch fire and be among the top candidates coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire. There is a pathway for him that takes him to the nomination win. But, unless Inslee emerges from February 2020 in the top two of candidates, he is likely to be done with his formal campaign. By the way, put a pin in that date.
Inslee could then run for the cabinet
Sure, I know there isn’t a formal election to the cabinet of a presidential administration. But, getting out and campaigning throughout the rest of 2020 would sure help to elevate Inslee’s value to the next president, be she either Democratic, Republican or independent.
Whether Inslee runs for the nomination or not, campaigning to elevate issues of climate change, the environment, and conservation in the presidential dialog could position Inslee to serve at the helm of EPA, Interior or Energy.
If the next president is a Democrat, that would make sense. But, if the next president is an independent, or a Republican that has run on a “unity ticket,” bringing in a Democratic governor like Inslee might make for really smart politics. Think of a John Kasich as president and who he might want to recruit for his team. Campaigning in 2020 to influence the national conversation helps burnish Inslee’s position and elevate his profile.
Inslee could run for President and Governor both in 2020
Here’s where it gets interesting, but it’s not really rocket science.
If Inslee campaigns for the nomination, and it doesn’t pan out early, he’ll be done with the formal campaign probably by February.
Filing for governor doesn’t happen until May. Inslee would have plenty of time to still file for governor having given his best shot to the early primaries. Moreover, with Iowa’s caucus likely scheduled for January or early February, if things don’t go well for Inslee, he would have plenty of time to return to Olympia to manage the legislative process. His role is most important at the end of the session as it is, which ends in March.
In other words, Inslee can try his hand at the presidential nomination, and if things don’t go well, he will still have time to return to campaign for a third term. All it would take is the allowance by other Democratic candidates to give Inslee a bit of time to figure out what he wants to do. In return, Inslee would need to guarantee some level of commitment, likely of funding from Inslee donors, to their cause, whether that was in 2020 or beyond.
“Jay Inslee’s not done.” That’s the takeaway from staff close to Inslee’s political thoughts and from watching the governor himself. Plan on him being a candidate for some office in 2020, and perhaps two.