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2024 Washington governor’s race taking shape — if Jay Inslee doesn’t run again

By Jim Brunner, The Seattle Times
Published: March 20, 2023, 6:04pm

SEATTLE — Gov. Jay Inslee isn’t yet saying whether he’ll seek a fourth term next year, but that hasn’t stopped a post-Inslee 2024 political landscape from starting to take shape.

After all, there are only 600 or so days to go before Election Day.

In a state that hasn’t elected a Republican as governor in more than four decades, it’s no surprise that most of the early jockeying is on the Democratic side.

Two prominent statewide elected Democrats, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, are preparing runs if Inslee steps aside.

A third talked-about Democratic contender — King County Executive Dow Constantine — took himself out of contention Friday, saying he really likes the job he has.

On the Republican side, no top-tier candidate has so far emerged, and one possibility, Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, said Friday he, too, has no plans to run.

The big question remains Inslee, who has not ruled out running for an unprecedented fourth term. His political team has spread the word to insiders — don’t count him out.

“The governor is focused on the legislative session and hasn’t made any decisions about 2024 yet. I’m not sure when he’ll make a decision, but (it) certainly won’t be until after the session is over,” Inslee campaign consultant Aisling Kerins said in an email. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn in late April.

In an interview Friday, Constantine said he had a “candid conversation” with Inslee “some months ago” before deciding on his own political future. He said while Inslee didn’t say so explicitly, “I came away from that meeting very much thinking he might run for a fourth term.”

Constantine subsequently decided he’ll concentrate on his remaining work as county executive (his fourth term runs through 2025). Even before his announcement, Constantine’s conclusion was foreshadowed in recent campaign fundraising totals. He pulled in just $3 in February.

Uncertainty over Inslee’s intentions, meanwhile, has left Ferguson and Franz maneuvering under the plausible cover of campaigning for reelection to their current positions.

Both Democrats have been making the rounds at party political gatherings across the state, including appearances Saturday at the annual Democrats of Pacific County Crab Feed, an event in its 95th year.

Ferguson, who like Inslee is in his third term, has amassed $3.8 million in campaign cash between his campaign and surplus accounts, which would put him in the financial pole position for a gubernatorial run.

Last month, his campaign spent $16,743 to buy donor lists from Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison, who’d raised a then-record $131 million while running for Senate two years ago. Ferguson’s campaign also has advertised in recent weeks to hire a political director for the 2024 election cycle.

In an interview last week, Ferguson said people shouldn’t read too much into those moves, which all could benefit his reelection campaign for attorney general. But he’s made no secret about getting ready in case Inslee decides to move on.

“I’d say that obviously the governor needs to make his own decision on his own timeline,” Ferguson said. “I am preparing for running in 2024, either for reelection, or, if the governor should choose not to seek a fourth term, obviously I would seriously consider running for governor.”

Ferguson was clear he won’t run if Inslee does.

Franz, serving her second term, in an interview last week said she’s laser focused on the current legislative session, where she has been pushing budget asks and environment-related legislation for the Department of Natural Resources, which she heads.

But she also sounded very much like she’s already prepared a gubernatorial campaign kickoff speech.

“A lot of people have asked me to run for governor, which I am very humbled by,” Franz said. “I am very strongly considering it.”

Franz, who has worked across the aisle in Olympia with Eastern Washington Republican legislators, said Washington’s rural and urban areas “have common problems to address,” including housing, homelessness and impacts of climate change.

“These are really tough challenges, but I honestly believe we can solve them. What we need are leaders who are bold and take risks,” she said. “I have seen how that leadership style works even in a divided state.”

She also noted she’d be only the third woman to serve as Washington governor if elected.

Unlike Ferguson, Franz hasn’t ruled out announcing a campaign even before Inslee announces his future. She said if Inslee decides against running, “he is leaving with a legacy of success.”

Franz has about $204,000 in her campaign and surplus accounts. Both she and Ferguson, like other state elected officials, are barred from raising campaign funds during the legislative session.

While it’s still early, the potential 2024 gubernatorial field on the Democratic side hasn’t shifted much from four years ago, when Franz and Ferguson, along with Constantine, had also talked openly of running for governor. All stepped back after Inslee decided to run for a third term following his failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

On the Republican side, no obvious big-name contender has come forward. Semi Bird, a military veteran and Richland School Board member, has announced his candidacy and raised about $33,000 so far.

A poll released last week on a hypothetical 2024 gubernatorial race, assuming Inslee doesn’t run, found Ferguson leading the Democratic field with 21 percent support, to 7 percent each for Franz and Constantine. The poll of 874 likely voters was sponsored by Northwest Progressive Institute.

Dammeier, the only Republican tested in the poll, had 35 percent support — dead even with the three combined Democrats. He’s in his second and final term as Pierce County executive due to that county’s term limits.

Dammeier has been long discussed as a potentially formidable Republican candidate. But he hasn’t taken the leap in a state where the GOP’s statewide electoral prospects have grown increasingly dim.

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Washington has not elected a Republican governor since John Spellman in 1980.

In 2020, Republicans cast their lot with Loren Culp, a small-town police officer who lost to Inslee by 545,000 votes and refused to concede while lobbing false claims of fraud. He ran last year for Congress against Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, but failed to get past the primary. Culp was recently hired to run the Klickitat County Jail.

Dammeier said he was flattered by the potential support shown in the poll. But he’s not planning on becoming the 2024 Republican standard-bearer.

“I am focused entirely on serving the people of Pierce County,” he said.