Will Washington GOP get fooled again on governor’s race?

BELLINGHAM, Washington — Rather than allowing party-specific primaries, Washington state has one general statewide primary in August. The top two finishers of every race, regardless of party, are placed on the ballot in November. The hopefuls that political handicappers are expecting in the general election for governor are Democratic state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and former congressman Dave Reichert, a Republican.

Reichert is also a former King County elected sheriff and author of the true-crime bestseller Chasing the Devil: My Twenty-Year Quest to Capture the Green River Killer. Spoiler alert: they got him, though not as fast as Reichert would have liked.

Notwithstanding Reichert’s killer resume, the election would likely be a slam dunk for Ferguson in any normal year. Washington state hasn’t had a member of the GOP in the governor’s mansion since early 1985. Centrist Republican John Spellman was sent packing after a single term.

Democratic state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and former Republican congressman Dave Reichert. (AP Photos)

Moreover, Washington has nine statewide elected executive offices, from state auditor to superintendent of public instruction to governor to state insurance commissioner. Every one of those seats is currently occupied by a Democrat.

Yet pollster Echelon Insights found in March that likely voters are starting to break for Reichert. In a two-way ballot, 39% of respondents said they would vote for the former sheriff. Only 30% of voters polled currently favor the attorney general. Previous Echelon polling had shown a tighter race.

Andrew Villeneuve, executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, isn’t buying it. “Echelon obtained these findings primarily by constructing a skewed statewide sample that doesn’t have enough Democratic and progressive voters in it to properly resemble the likely Washington State November electorate,” he charged on NPI’s blog in early April.

Though Villeneuve admits that Echelon, a Republican-aligned firm, made its mark by challenging skewed internal polls by GOP campaigns, he lamented, “And yet, here they are, generating the sort of bad data that they were calling on Republicans to stop wasting money creating around a decade ago.”

In contrast, he offered NPI’s own polling, conducted by the firm Public Policy Polling. Its February findings had Ferguson leading Reichert 46% to 42% in a two-man race.

Villeneuve also pointed to the 2022 elections, when Democratic Sen. Patty Murray comfortably dispatched Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley — 57.1% to 42.6% — in spite of some polling by Republican-aligned firms (though not Echelon) that indicated a tighter race.

The state Capitol building in Olympia, Washington. (Lindsey Wasson/AP)

Yet it’s possible Echelon is onto something here. The elections of 2022 in Washington were marred by state infighting between Trumpist and non-Trumpy factions of the GOP. One primary challenge cost a sitting Republican congresswoman her own party’s nomination and the GOP did not hold that seat in the general election. There is some evidence that Republicans simply didn’t show up in their historic numbers.

There are also many indicators that this year might be different. Washington is famous for its direct democracy, but there have been few plebiscites since Ferguson went after and legally and financially hobbled former initiative kingmaker Tim Eyman.

Last year, the group Let’s Go Washington qualified six measures as initiatives to the legislature. After much debate, the Democratic majority in both houses in Olympia passed three of those initiatives into law that would likely have been layups with voters.

The initiatives passed by the legislature affirmed parents’ rights to be informed about their children in public schools, prohibited an income tax, and rolled back much of the state’s mocked and highly restrictive police pursuit law.

(True story: One man who was suspected of kidnapping called 911, said police had no legal right to pursue him under the pursuit law, and insisted that they back off. The stunned operator suggested that maybe if he pulled over voluntarily, they could sort this all out.)

However, the legislature did not act on three initiatives. Voters in November get to decide the fate of the carbon tax scheme that has added almost 50 cents to the price of every gallon of gas, a capital gains tax that is incentivizing billionaires to flee the state, and the right to opt out of a payroll tax that would confer some limited subsidy for long-term care in advancing years.

Echelon found that these initiatives would likely be passed by voters and that some of that populist fairy dust could rub off on Republicans. For instance, “Voters strongly prefer candidates who back the state LTC reform measure, with almost two-thirds (65%) more likely to support them,” the polling report states.

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Another key Echelon finding was that voters have soured on three-term Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, first elected in 2012 and now retiring. One of the polling firm’s “Key Findings” is that the governor’s approval is currently “underwater by a 10-point margin, 43-53.”

Does that matter, since Inslee won’t be running for reelection? Hard to say at this point. But if that finding is remotely accurate, it does suggest Ferguson won’t have any coattails to ride in on.

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