With 2019 two-thirds of the way over, and with the 2020 presidential elections fast approaching, the Washington State Republican Party is running out of time to figure out who to put up for most of the nine statewide executive department positions that are always contested in presidential years along with the presidency.
Out of power in Olympia and hampered by a thin bench, the party has yet to recruit credible challengers against most of the Democratic incumbents who will be seeking reelection. (Democrats hold six of the nine positions in the executive department, while Republicans have two. A ninth is officially nonpartisan.)
The Democratic Party’s likely ticket for executive races appears pretty much set.
Governor Jay Inslee has declared for a third term, and will be running alongside Cyrus Habib for Lieutenant Governor, Bob Ferguson for Attorney General, Hilary Franz for Commissioner of Public Lands, Pat McCarthy for Auditor, and possibly Mike Kreidler for Insurance Commissioner (unless he retires).
The party may also throw its blessing behind Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal’s reelection. Reykdal was once a Democratic legislator.
Additionally, Democrats already have a formidable challenger for incumbent Treasurer Duane Davdson, one of the two Republicans expected to seek reelection: the widely respected and well regarded State Representative Mike Pellicciotti of the 30th, who has already outraised Davidson three times over.
That just leaves Secretary of State, an office Democrats have not held in more than half a century. Incumbent Kim Wyman plans to run again and will be difficult to beat. State Party Chair Tina Podlodowski was Wyman’s last opponent and could not take Wyman out despite getting over 58% of the vote in King County.
As party chair, finding an opponent for Wyman is now one of Podlodowski’s many responsibilities. As challenging as that task might be, it utterly pales in comparison to the problems that State Republican Party Chair Caleb Heimlich is dealing with. That aforementioned thin bench makes the recruitment of appealing, credible candidates on the Republican side a very tall order.
Notice I said appealing, credible candidates. There’s no shortage of Republican activists and downballot officeholders who think they have what it takes to go up against Democratic incumbents. The militant, far right state senator Phil Fortunato thinks he’s gubernatorial material. So does Loren Culp, the police chief of Republic.
Top Republicans would prefer someone else at the top of the ticket… someone who could actually compete for votes in the state’s vote-rich suburbs.
The ideal candidate is someone who has run and won before and been elected in an area larger than a small rural county or a legislative district. Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier would qualify, but he doesn’t seem interested in vacating his current job for what could easily be a losing campaign for higher office.
The former King County Sheriff won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004 and was able to secure reelection in six successive cycles: 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016. In 2018, Reichert opted to retire rather than seek another term, and Democrats captured the seat, now held by Kim Schrier.
Reichert is now a lobbyist at Gordon Thomas Honeywell, and by all accounts, seems pretty happy there. Still, it’s always nice to be wanted, and Reichert has on several occasions expressed an interest in serving as governor.
Problem is, to become governor, Reichert would have to work very hard, putting in long days and doing a lot of travel. He would need to articulate at least a semblance of a platform or campaign for governing that would interest those voters who aren’t already planning to vote a straight or mostly straight Democratic ticket in 2020. But even if he did all that, his campaign might still be a pointless effort. There simply may not be enough voters in Washington who are willing to support somebody running alongside Donald Trump for high office next year.
If Governor of Washington State were an appointed position, I have no doubt Reichert would gladly jump at the opportunity to serve.
But it’s not an appointed position; it’s an elected one. Reichert would have to campaign, and vigorously. He’d need to invest serious time familiarizing himself with a bevy of state level issues in order to truly be a credible candidate.
And he’d need to figure out how to respond to Democratic criticisms of his record as a member of the United States of Representatives, especially his final two years in office, in which he was an enabler of the agenda of Donald Trump.
Reichert has considered undertaking such a journey before, in 2015. He ultimately decided to take a pass and Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant went on to become Inslee’s challenger. Inslee dispatched Bryant with ease in 2016.
The political climate for Republicans has not improved since then.
In fact, it’s gotten worse. Much worse. The Democratic Party cleaned up very nicely in the 2018 midterms, adding seven State House seats and three State Senate seats to its legislative majority in addition to capturing WA-08 for the first time ever, making Reichert’s successor a Democrat. Democrats remain offensively-focused in 2020. They’re planning on capturing even more legislative seats, defeating Jaime Herrera-Beutler in WA-03, and unseating Duane Davidson.
If Reichert says yes to running, it will make the 2020 gubernatorial race less boring for reporters and political observers, but it will not help the Republicans’ prospects considering that Trump is the head of their party. There are fewer and fewer voters operating on the basis of “I vote for the person, not the party” these days.
This “Trump card” may be the deciding factor for Reichert.
As I alluded to above, there is no escaping the vortex that is Donald Trump. He has remade the Republican establishment in his image with the wild enthusiasm of the people that same establishment have long considered their base.
Anyone who files for office as a Republican in 2020 is signing up to be part of Trump’s ticket and Trump’s party. “Prefers Donald Trump’s Party” would actually be an accurate and fitting descriptor for Republicans on next year’s ballot.
Understandably, Caleb Heimlich doesn’t want to simply concede next year’s state level elections to the Democrats, which is why he’s laboring to recruit somebody who has Reichert’s level of name recognition to run for governor.
But for Heimlich’s recruiting for governor and other state level offices to not be an exercise in futility, the Washington State Republican Party and its candidates would have to pull off what would seem to be an impossible feat: woo voters who don’t like what their party has become without alienating their Trump-loving base.
They couldn’t manage it in 2016. What’s going to make 2020 any different?