Don’t count out Jay Inslee among crowd of Democratic presidential racehorses

There’s a vicarious excitement that wells up when rooting for an underdog who defies long odds, especially if that underdog represents your home state on a national stage.

Think of Russell Wilson, the undersized third-round draft pick who quarterbacked the Seahawks to their only Super Bowl victory in 2014. Or Seattle Slew, the colt with no pedigree bought by a Yakima County couple at public auction who went on to win the Triple Crown in 1977.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement Friday that he’s plunging into the Democratic presidential sweepstakes ranks among the longest of longshots. He enters a crowded paddock featuring racehorses such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris — with Joe Biden sniffing just outside the fence.

On Monday, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper joined the fray, interrupting Inslee’s coming-out party and creating a sense of redundancy in a party fractured by identity politics. With Inslee and Hickenlooper, the Democrats have a pair of late-60-something-year-old white guys who’ve led western states where marijuana is legal.

Inslee must overcome the huge challenge of virtually zero national media profile. He also faces ambivalence in his own heavily blue state; just 37 percent of registered Washington voters in a Crosscut/Elway poll in late December said they would definitely or probably cast a presidential ballot for him.

That hardly rates as red-hot excitement for the underdog.

But we believe Inslee’s campaign could shine a spotlight on Pacific Northwest issues willfully ignored by President Trump.

It’s much too soon to count him out; he could be a forceful national voice on confronting climate change, no matter who wins the Democratic nomination.

All things being equal, Inslee has a strong public-policy resume that should float near the top of the pile. He’s a two-term governor, former congressman and state legislator. One must go back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to find a president with a similar breadth of state and federal experience.

But in politics, all things are never equal. Inslee is a “perfectly plausible Democratic candidate for president,” University of Puget Sound political science professor David Sousa told us Tuesday, “but he’s in a field with rock stars and people with enormous fundraising capacity.”

Meantime, Washington Republicans have absurdly called for Inslee to resign because he supposedly can’t govern the state while running for president. Did they express misgivings about GOP governors who previously waged national campaigns, such as John Kasich and Mike Pence in 2016 or George W. Bush in 2000? Of course not.

(They’d have a better argument if they criticized Inslee for using his taxpayer-paid security detail for political travel, and urged him to reimburse those costs with campaign funds.)

Inslee took advantage of his fleeting new-candidate status Monday by appearing on “The View,” a national TV talk show. He doubled down on his pledge to concentrate on climate change. “We have to have a leader who will say fundamentally and unequivocally that this is the No. 1 priority in the United States,” he said.

A skeptical host asked whether Inslee’s singular focus can galvanize voters. It’s a valid question. Even in his home state, where two carbon-fee ballot measures have been defeated since 2016, Inslee would struggle to find a majority of voters who place global warming above other concerns, like affordable housing and health care.

Inslee risks being seen as a one-trick pony rather than a racehorse.

That’s why, in addition to high-minded appeals, he would do well to keep going for the jugular. “What I want most in life is to defeat Donald Trump and make him a blip in history,” Inslee said on “The View,” provoking a happy roar from the audience.

Along the way, he just might become a national player. We can see him winning a cabinet job — say, Environmental Protection Agency administrator — in a Democratic administration. He would be a welcome alternative to EPA chiefs Scott Pruitt and now Andrew Wheeler, a pair of Trump energy-industry pawns.

Inslee’s campaign could prove to be good for the country, good for Washington state and good for cleaner land, air and water, regardless of whether he’s elected as America’s 46th president.