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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Westneat: Race may hinge on Trump

Former president’s shadow, GOP voters may determine governor

By Danny Westneat
Published: June 10, 2023, 6:01am

Democratic Party politics around here, which is to say all politics of late, has been a bit like the old Soviet Politburo. You wait your turn for this post or that, and then the whole party gets in line.

It’s what happened the last time Washington had an open seat for governor, in 2012. The party fielded one candidate only, then-Congressman Jay Inslee, and no Democrat has seen fit to challenge him since.

That polite party pecking order is one reason why the state’s top three elected officials — Inslee and our two U.S. senators — have held their posts for a combined 62 years now.

So what’s happening in the race for governor now counts as a sea change or at least a fresh breeze blowing through musty hallways. It’s shaping up to be the most wide-open, contested statewide primary among Democrats going back nearly 30 years.

The entrance into the race of moderate state senator and pizzeria owner Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, means there are now three legitimate Democratic contenders. He joins a field that includes the “next-in-line” candidate, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, as well as state Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, known for her environmental focus and forest firefighting.

The last time a pileup like this happened on the left was the governor primary of 1996, when then-King County Executive Gary Locke beat out fellow Democrats Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Norm Rice. What’s notable about that campaign is Locke won the primary with only 23.6 percent of the vote.

We’ve adopted a top-two primary since then, meaning both finalists now could be Democrats. But the race may hinge on two things Democrats don’t typically care to think about — Republican voters, and the looming shadow of Donald Trump.

“There’s a very real chance that Republicans could essentially decide which Democrat moves into the governor’s mansion,” was how the Washington Observer politics newsletter put it this past week.

The reason is that there may not be a major GOP presence in the campaign. If the party fields another slate of conspiracy theorists, grifters and constitutionalist gun nuts, it may leave middle-of-the-road, non-MAGA voters casting about for somewhere, anywhere, to go.

Enter Mullet.

Mullet is trying to be a political unicorn: the socially liberal fiscal conservative. He votes for abortion rights and assault weapon bans, but against new taxes. His candidacy will be a test whether such a middle lane exists in polarized politics anymore. As for Democratic voters, they’re going to get something they haven’t had in an election for one of the big three statewide offices in several decades: a choice.

Mullet went after his party’s stagnant hierarchical system in his announcement: “Every governor for the last 30 years has been a lawyer, with the same old solutions and ways of thinking. Lawyers are good at finding ways to sue people, while small business owners are good at creating jobs and finding ways to save money.”

He’s got a point, no? The problem with it, though, is that Ferguson has excelled at suing one person in particular — who also happens to be “the most hated politician for Democrats in this country’s history,” as Dotzauer put it.

Ferguson will happily tell you the story: He sued the Trump administration 99 times. He still keeps a page at the attorney general’s official website devoted to them all. The most famous one came 10 days into Trump’s presidency, when Ferguson beat back Trump’s bigoted Muslim travel ban, winning a nationwide restraining order.

Ferguson’s campaign launch video includes a clip of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow chortling at how Ferguson “absolutely cut the Trump administration off at the knees.” That is catnip to nervous Democrats.

If Republicans had cut ties with Trump, the story of Bob and his 99 lawsuits could have been old stale news by now.

If Trump makes the ballot, though, or is even a threat to do so, Democrats seem most likely to rally hard behind Ferguson. If the election itself is an existential crisis for democracy, are you gonna go with the brawler Trump fighter? Or the lands official or the pizza shop owner?

It would be yet another bitter irony of the local GOP’s catastrophic misadventures with Trump if it ends up fueling the rise of their least favorite official on the scene after Jay Inslee. And it would also be richly deserved.