The gubernatorial campaigns of Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna are looking well past Washington’s early Aug. 7 primary this year. Both men expect to glide past seven other candidates for a November showdown in one of the most competitive governor’s races in the nation.
McKenna and Inslee both are lawyers, and both have decades of public service – Inslee as an eight-term congressman and state lawmaker, McKenna as a two-term attorney general and former King County councilman. But they differ on most issues, such as how to boost jobs, implement federal health care reform and improve performance in the K-12 public school system.
Opinion polls put the pair in a virtual dead heat, though Inslee trails slightly. McKenna also inched ahead of Inslee in fundraising – by about $70,000 – last week, a scant amount for campaigns that have raised more than $6.8 million each. Inslee’s total includes $865,000 from the state Democratic Party, and he also transferred money from his congressional accounts.
“They’re starting out even, which is not too much of a surprise here,” Seattle political pollster Stuart Elway said. “Inslee has the benefit of being a Democrat in a blue state; McKenna has run and won statewide. Across the state, he may be better known. Their name recognition is equivalent but people may have a better sense of (McKenna).”
CHANGING CULTURE OF OLYMPIA
Voters also might know that Washington hasn’t had a Republican sleeping in the Governor’s Mansion – and vetoing Democrats’ bills – since John Spellman left office in January 1985.
McKenna’s campaign slogan is a “new direction” for Washington, including government agencies in Olympia that he thinks are resistant to change.
The brainy, two-term attorney general says he wants to put new people in charge of state agencies. Despite years of downsizing in the state government work force that have left it the size it was in the late 1990s, McKenna is pledging to slim it some more, to cut unspecified rules and regulations for businesses, and to potentially farm out some state work to the private sector, unless state workers can show they do it better and cheaper.
Inslee, who at different times represented the north Seattle suburbs and Central Washington in Congress, is campaigning on a jobs plan that would use tax credits to boost the clean energy, biotech and high-tech fields.
But he says he wants to change the culture of Olympia, too. Inslee often talks about the “Lean” management techniques used by Toyota, Boeing and Virginia Mason hospital to root out wasteful activities.
McKenna counters that he has used Lean in his Attorney General’s Office to lower staffing and save client agencies money.
Washington has one of 11 gubernatorial seats up for election nationwide, and one of five open seats – raising the stakes for both parties nationally.
The Republican Governors Association reserved $1.9 million of television air time recently on McKenna’s side, according to The Seattle Times. A Democrat-allied group, Our Washington, has reserved nearly $3.2 million in ad time, and the Democratic Governors Association has contributed some $1.25 million to that PAC – including one check for $1 million that the McKenna campaign is highlighting.
The RGA did not return a call asking for comment, but Kate Hansen of the Democratic Governors Association said the Inslee-McKenna matchup “is one of the most competitive of the cycle, and the DGA is fully committed to investing what it takes to keep the seat Democratic.”
The last Elway Poll of 408 voters, done June 13-16, had McKenna up by two points – at 42-40. That was well inside the 5 percent margin of error and the closeness mirrored other recent polls.
But that and other polling was done before the first gubernatorial debate in Spokane in mid-June and before the U.S. Supreme Court upheld federal health care reform in a historic case. McKenna had joined the lawsuit to overturn President Obama’s plan, known as the Affordable Care Act, because it required everyone to buy insurance or pay a tax penalty.
Chris Vance, a longtime Republican political consultant and former state party chairman, said he thinks the McKenna-Inslee race will be close in the primary – and until ads begin to flood the airwaves. He also thinks health care reform won’t be as important down the stretch because it is a federal issue.
“Rob’s message will be, ‘The same people have run Olympia for 25 years. It’s time for a change,’” Vance said. “The Democrats’ strategy will be, ‘Rob is another scary, right-wing conservative.’ … And Rob will come right back and say, ‘No, I’m not.’”
Both McKenna and Inslee have been talking a lot about health care lately. Both want to rein in costs – McKenna by pushing more people into health-savings accounts and using managed care, as Group Health does, to rein in wasteful health care spending. Inslee wants more preventive care and managing of chronic conditions, like King County has done with diabetes.
McKenna’s position is getting complicated. On one hand, he likes the new state Health Benefit Exchange, under which consumers will be able to buy private-insurance policies starting in late 2013. On the other hand, he thinks consumers should be encouraged to purchase health-savings accounts, a popular GOP idea for many years, and he wants to steer low-income people into private insurance rather than Medicaid when possible.
In fact, McKenna has hesitated to embrace the law’s major expansion of Medicaid, the shared state-federal medical program for the poor, because he says it could be costly. McKenna hasn’t said exactly what coverage he thinks the state cannot afford, and his campaign says that is a topic for a new governor to take up with a new Legislature.
Inslee, by contrast, says that adding potentially 500,000 more people to Medicaid won’t add significant costs for the state for a few years and that the small 10 percent state share in future years is worth it. Inslee also makes the point that consumers already pay $1,000 a year in inflated health insurance premiums because of the passed-on cost of giving care to the uninsured, which he says will be reduced by covering those people.
The Democrat says he wants to be a “jealous guardian” of elements in the new law that guarantee insurance to all consumers, bar lifetime caps on benefits, let adult children stay on a parent’s policy until age 26 and reduce prescription costs for the elderly.
AREAS OF AGREEMENT
Despite their many differences, there is one goal on which the two candidates agree. Both say they want to answer a state Supreme Court ruling on school funding by trying to put an extra $1 billion of state dollars into K-12 schools in the next budget cycle.
And in a claim that is disputed by a skeptical Gov. Chris Gregoire, both claim they won’t need to raise taxes. Both say they can come up with funds by closing a few tax loopholes, spurring job growth, reducing state costs for services and cutting health care costs.
McKenna favors a charter school proposal that is going on the fall ballot, while Inslee talks of innovative schools but not charters. And Inslee, like Gregoire, favors Referendum 74’s legalization of same-sex marriages, while McKenna opposes it on grounds that it conflicts with his Catholic beliefs.
Their ideas for boosting job creation also are far different. Inslee wants to use tax breaks for research and development to spur more high-tech, biotech and alternative-energy innovation – and jobs. He also argues that entrepreneurs at universities should be encouraged to turn research into new business ventures.
McKenna is offering old-school Republican ideas: fewer regulations and lowering state-influenced costs for businesses. He says that eventually – when the economy is better – he wants to reduce the business-and-occupations tax burden for small businesses.
On the state’s problem of paying for new transportation improvements, McKenna wants to push a tax package to the ballot as early as fall 2013. Inslee is not ready to do that, saying the public first needs more reasons to trust government.