Rob McKenna is siding with Indian tribes and against some fellow Republicans in the Legislature who see nontribal gambling as a potential jackpot for the state budget.
On several fronts, in fact, McKenna has become an unlikely ally of the tribal governments that have helped maintain Democratic Party control in Olympia. As attorney general, he has visited every reservation in the state -- an outreach effort that even a tribal leader who supports rival Jay Inslee calls "unprecedented."
Tribes have rewarded him with campaign contributions -- far less than Democrat Inslee has received, but vastly more than other Republicans who have run for governor in the recent past.
"Tribes historically have always leaned Democrat, but over the last 10 years or so we've become more politically astute and we're more attentive to what is the political position of the candidates," said the Inslee backer, W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallum Tribe and president of the Washington Indian Gaming Association. "Tribes are being like a lot of special interests out there, and they're hedging their bets."
Indian tribes haven't abandoned the Democrats by any measure. Inslee, with more than $50,000, has outraised McKenna more than five-to-one among tribes. While the Puyallup Tribe, for example, has given equal amounts to both, more tribes have contributed only to Inslee.
"Predominantly," Allen said, "I think the tribes are still going to lean toward Jay and the Democratic Party."
McKenna said he thinks contributions "have actually been pretty balanced in this election and I think they'll continue to be balanced."
That's about the best a Republican can hope for: that tribes will hold back from making major infusions into Democratic Party coffers, as they did in 2008 when the Tulalip, Puyallup and Muckleshoot tribes were three of the biggest donors to political action committees for the state party -- which in turn helped fund Gov. Chris Gregoire's re-election run.
That still could happen, with six weeks before ballots go out for the Nov. 6 election. But so far, instead of the state party, the biggest beneficiaries of tribal money this time around are House and Senate Democrats.
Their PACs have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Puyallups, Muckleshoots and the Gaming Association's Campaign for Tribal Self-Reliance -- more than they took in four years ago. All three also are McKenna donors.
Tribal leaders appreciate that neither gubernatorial candidate is inclined to grant nontribal card rooms their big wish: the slot-style machines that Indian casinos already have.
"I think we have enough gambling in the state and (it's) appropriately based on the reservations where the money stays in the local community," McKenna said. It's a sentiment he shares with Inslee, who said he would rather see gambling profits stay in tribes and communities than head to far-flung corporate headquarters "from China to Nevada."
Cardroom operators point to their own local jobs, in addition to the $190 million a year they say slots would raise for government. They employed 10,000 people here about seven years ago, but that's down to less than 6,000 as their table games struggle to compete with casinos' video machines, said Dolores Chiechi, executive director of the Recreational Gaming Association.
"The public wants electronic gaming," she said.
Voters decided in 2004 that they didn't want slot-style machines in off-reservation card rooms, however.
Neither candidate likes another perennial revenue suggestion: persuading tribes to hand over a piece of their casino proceeds, as they do in some other states. The state estimates Washington's tribal casinos brought in $1.95 billion in the year that ended in June 2011.