To turn the governor’s office Republican for the first time in a generation, Attorney General Rob McKenna seems intent on keeping the race focused on local issues and state politics.
To hear him tell it, almost everything that’s wrong with Washington, from high unemployment to struggling businesses to underfunded schools, is the fault of Democrats who have controlled the governorship since 1985 and one or both houses of the Legislature since 1998.
“If you believe it’s time for a new direction, vote for me,” he says.
To keep the office in Democratic hands, former U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee often tries to nationalize the campaign.
He criticizes McKenna for joining a national lawsuit designed to block federal health care reform, and his allies try to tie McKenna to a more conservative national platform on issues like abortion and contraception.
If there’s a problem with Olympia, McKenna is part of it, Inslee argues: “I’m not the one that’s been in Olympia for the past seven years.”
The reasons for the different approaches are clear: Democrats at the top of the ticket generally do better statewide than Republicans. Barack Obama easily won the state in 2008 and is widely expected to capture the state’s 12 electoral votes this year.
But Washington voters are notorious ticket splitters, and the difference in recent years between races for president and governor can be dramatic. In 2004, for example, when Democrat John Kerry topped Republican George W. Bush by 205,000 votes in the presidential race, Democrat Chris Gregoire beat Republican Dino Rossi by just 133 votes, and only after two recounts and a court fight.
Washington residents don’t register by party, and nearly one-third identify themselves as independents in many surveys. To win a state that is conservatively populist in the east and progressively liberal in the more populous urban Puget Sound, a statewide candidate has to reach beyond party platforms.
For McKenna, that means pushing fiscal conservatism while walking a line between conservative and moderate social positions. He supports supermajorities for the Legislature to raise taxes and says he will cut spending on other programs rather than raise taxes to find an estimated $1 billion for public schools to satisfy a Supreme Court mandate. He’d cut regulations for businesses trying to start up or expand, and try to save money on workers’ compensation rates by adding private insurance to the state’s century-old system.
To improve the economy, McKenna says he’d support an increase in the credit small companies receive on the business and occupation tax, raising it from $420 to $4,800.
He doesn’t describe himself as either pro-life or pro-choice on abortion and opposes the same-sex marriage proposal on the ballot based on his Catholic upbringing but says he supports civil unions, which he contends bestow the same rights without marriage. His office is defending the state in a legal dispute with pharmacists who don’t want to fill prescriptions for the “Plan B” emergency contraceptive, and he says he believes women should have access to that drug.
Inslee, who voted for the federal health care reform law, levels some of his toughest criticism at McKenna for challenging what’s sometimes called Obamacare. Blocking the law would have left some women with higher medical insurance costs than men, restricted access to contraception and abortion, and excluded some who have suffered from breast cancer from coverage because of pre-existing conditions, he says. McKenna has accused Inslee of “politicizing breast cancer,” noting that his own mother suffered from the disease.
McKenna said he joined the national lawsuit to challenge the federal mandate to buy insurance, even though the suit sought to overturn the entire law. In upholding the law, a 5-4 split on the U.S. Supreme Court said Congress didn’t have the power to require people to buy insurance, essentially agreeing with his point.
“That’s like saying Custer won the Little Big Horn,” Inslee said.
Part of the health care reform law allows the state to expand Medicaid, with the federal government picking up the tab in the early years. That’s good for people who currently have insurance, Inslee says, because their rates won’t be raised to cover the costs of the uninsured seeking expensive treatment in emergency rooms.
The state shouldn’t expand Medicaid that much because it will eventually have to pick up some of the costs, McKenna says: “Don’t be fooled by that Washington, D.C., mentality.”
Both candidates say they oppose a general tax increase, preferring instead to get more money into state coffers from an improving economy. Instead of McKenna’s across-the-board tax credits, however, Inslee wants to boost the chances for industries he considers key to the state’s future, like aerospace, software, biotechnology and green energy.
Each candidate accuses the other of being less than honest about taxes. McKenna argues that previous Democratic governors had opposed tax increases during campaigns, only to propose them once in office. He parses Inslee’s verb tenses and syntax, trying to suggest loopholes in the promise.
Inslee counters that McKenna supports a proposal to shift the way property taxes are collected by the state and local school districts to pay for public schools. In theory that “tax swap” would result in no changes for most property owners, decreases for some and increases for others. The exact numbers aren’t known because the details of the proposal are still being worked out.
“It’s a gimmick that doesn’t help us,” Inslee says.
It’s a proposal being discussed by legislators of both parties, McKenna says. It’s not his plan, but it is one solution to the state Supreme Court’s mandate to increase school spending, which he argues Inslee doesn’t understand.
Both candidates have raised about $9.8 million so far, but they’re not the only ones pouring money into this race.
The Republican Governors Association set up a special political group for Washington and has thus far put some $7.3 million into it. They began running ads in September criticizing Inslee’s votes in Congress as bad for small business.
The Democratic Governors Association combined with several national unions, the state teachers union and the state’s trial lawyers to raise more than $6.7 million so far. They have run ads saying McKenna is more Republican than he lets on.