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December, 10th 2010

McKenna vs. Inslee: It's On!

– Liz Mair

Joel Connelly has an excellent column at the Seattle P-I today, profiling the two (all-but-certain) contenders to replace soon-to-be outgoing Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire.  Here's a long excerpt:

Possible Democratic contender Rep. Jay Inslee is being his bold, bellicose self this week. He is out front in denouncing a "millionaires and billionaires" tax cut compromise negotiated by a Democratic president with whom he may share the ticket in 2012.

Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna is, as usual, covering all the bases and latching onto popular causes. McKenna recently picked Yakima to unveil his latest crusade, declaring: "Yakima is ground zero in the fight against gangs, but these crimes plague every city in the state."

The two likely opponents show where they've come from in setting a path for where they want to go.

McKenna is a onetime University of Washington ASUW president. He embodies an old truism that the student politician of today is the student politician of tomorrow. Inslee is an onetime Ingraham High School quarterback with an urge to throw deep and defy coverage. He's made a specialty of going over the heads of Fox News blonds.

Of course, Gov. Christine Gregoire is of no mind to declare herself a lame duck, not when just elected president of the National Governors Association. She continues to host quiet $1,000-a-plate fund raising dinners at Wild Ginger.

It is, however, time to look at the guys most likely to go for it.

Inslee has represented both sides of the "Cascade Curtain" in Congress. He won a legislative seat from Selah, then in 1992 upset a party-favored candidate in the Democratic primary and Republican Doc Hastings in the general election, and was off to Capitol Hill.

What's it like voting to ban assault weapons when you represent Central Washington in Congress? Fatal. Inslee lost a rematch with Hastings in 1994, moved to Bainbridge Island, ran unsuccessfully for governor, then in 1998 took on GOP Rep. Rick White, a rising star in the Gingrich Congress.

Across the country, Democrats ran from the Clinton impeachment scandal. Inslee faced it head on, arguing that the GOP-run House was wasting the public's time and money. He was headed back to Capitol Hill.

A classic Alaskan adage goes like this: There are old bush pilots and there are bold bush pilots, but there are NO "old, bold" bush pilots. Inslee has crashed a couple of times, but retains a go-for-it style.

He has co-authored a book (Apollo's Fire") advocating a 180-degree turn away from America's carbon economy, and a huge national investment in renewable energy. Inslee was out front last week at a D.C. press conference advocating a permanent ban on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.

Inslee has a few pretty apparent weaknesses. He isn't known statewide, has run only once (in 1996) for statewide office, and has relied on a tight, tiny inner circle of advisers.

Inslee is also thin-skinned: He has gotten steamed not just at critical news coverage, but even when a colleague's aide anonymously joked that nobody outshouts Jay Inslee at a press conference. (My source was hunted, but never outed.)

Rob McKenna IS the Republican Party's "bench" in Washington. He has twice won as attorney general as Democrats were winning most other statewide offices. He arrived via the Perkins Coie law firm and the King County Council, where he was a vociferous critic of Sound Transit in its early, troubled days.

McKenna made a point of maintaining and strengthening the AG's consumer protection office. He took to informing seniors about "Phishing," phony bank e-mails and offers of African dictators' fortunes -- designed to gain access to, and clean out, bank accounts.

He has also singled out domestic abuse and consumer fraud, and makes a point of submitting his own agenda each year as the Legislature convenes.

How does the Democrats' attack machine go after this guy? A scene in the Washington State Supreme Court on Nov. 18 makes for starters. McKenna was being challenged by a city run by Democrats (Seattle) and a Democratic State Land Commissioner Peter Goldmark.

McKenna has joined fellow Republican attorneys general in a legal challenge to the new health care reform law. "The client here is the state of Washington," McKenna's attorney told the Supremes.

The governor and city of Seattle beg to disagree, and wonder whether McKenna's real client is McKenna. 

This last point bears particular note, in my opinion, because it represents the great unknown, but much speculated upon, regarding a prospective McKenna bid.  

Health care reform is pretty popular in Washington and frankly because of the quality of our health care infrastructure, it is unlikely to wind up looking like a massive failure in the way it very well could (and in some cases, already has) elsewhere.  So positioning yourself against it seems risky-- and indeed, I know liberal-leaning voters in King County who have previously supported McKenna who find his challenge of the health care reform law distasteful and off-putting.  

On the other hand, there are also a lot of liberal-leaning types in Washington who hate the individual mandate-- the focus of the legal challenge-- just as much as conservatives and libertarians do, even if they like reform because it evidenced a willingness to do something on health care, a topic they care about very deeply.  Let's not forget that Obama beat Hillary Clinton in Washington's 2008 Democratic caucuses, and not just because he looked like the odds-on favorite at that point to become the nominee.  A lot of voters actually liked his policies better.  Primarily, those policies included things like long-term opposition to the Iraq War and a commitment to bring the troops home STAT with no waffling or equivocation, but also just so happened to include a health care reform plan that... didn't include the individual mandate, unlike Hillary's plan (the topic was actually a major bone of contention throughout the nominating process, and with health care being a major industry in Seattle, particularly, that debate was neither ignored nor only casually noted).  

The reality of the situation is, Inslee voted for the health care reform package that included the mandate.  Indeed, some credit him with having personally guaranteed the bill's passage via negotiation on two critical-to-resolve points far less discussed than the Stupak-federal-funding-for-abortion matter (regional disparities in hospital reimbursements and fee-for-service versus "value-based" reimbursement).

Now McKenna is one of the main opponents of that health care reform, nationwide.  

So, this is one 2012 race which actually could, in part, be decided based on how many people wind up feeling what way about the bill and a key feature of it-- and I think the picture is a little more muddied than it looks on the surface, even if more voters currently side with Inslee in backing the reform than with McKenna in opposing it, for the simple reason that it was a reform, even if a very imperfect one.  

McKenna, who does have a solid track record when it comes to consumer protection, as Connelly notes, may be able to solidify some backing for his position, including among some more liberal-leaning voters, if he moves to begin attacking insurers-- the prime beneficiaries of the individual mandate-- for things like outsized rate-rises which frankly do make people even more resistant to being told they have to buy what the insurers are selling.  

Inslee, of course, has the option of depicting McKenna as Ken Cuccinelli-lite-- and as a native Washingtonian currently living in Virginia, I can promise you that would be devastating, though Inslee may not have the disposition, temperament or reputation to do it and be taken seriously, something he must remember.

In any event, as Connelly concludes, all concerned had better buckle up-- indeed it will be a bumpy two years. [intro]

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