Oregon’s and Washington’s role in recent presidential elections has been relegated to ATMs. Candidates swoop in, attend high-priced fundraisers and slip out of town, often without even a perfunctory press interview. That may change in 2020.
Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Washington Governor Jay Inslee have dropped huge hints they are considering entering the 2020 Democratic presidential sweepstakes. Though both would be considered today as political longshots, each has a distinct political issue to push. Merkley is focused on voting rights, Inslee on responding to climate change, as issue he has championed for years, including the book he coauthored, Apollo’s Fire.
Merkley has earned national recognition for going to Texas to expose the internment at the border of asylum-seeking Latin American migrants and their children. Inslee gained recognition for leading the Democratic Governors Association as it reclaimed a number of statehouses in the 2018 midterm election.
Both hail from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which could be a crowded lane in the 2020 Democratic primary with candidates such as Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. Merkley and Inslee have been point persons confronting President Trump on key issues such as immigration, environmental protection and trade policy. Both have hit the campaign hustings, appearing side by side at a campaign event in Johnson City, Iowa and in New Hampshire, both early-voting primary states.
One advantage Inslee has over better-known candidates, and Merkley, is his executive experience (Inslee served in Congress before his election as governor). Now serving his second term, Inslee can point to achievements on voting rights, a higher minimum wage, ensuring net neutrality and major transportation investments.
As Jennifer Rubin, an opinion writer for the Washington Post, sees it: “[Inslee] might consider stressing his entire record as evidence of his ability to successfully govern, which includes climate change policies, and his role in challenging Trump’s immigration policies. Almost as an afterthought, he notes that renewable-energy legislation helped launched a multibillion-dollar wind industry and helped his state lead in GDP growth and wages. That seems to be his greatest selling point – creating a progressive haven while growing the economy, raising wages and saving the planet.”
Another advantage of potential Merkley and Inslee candidacies is that neither are in their 70s, as are Warren, Sanders, Joe Biden – and Donald Trump. Merkley is 62 and Inslee is 67. They also are fresh faces on the national political landscape, which might appeal to newly registered Democratic voters that helped Democrats regain control of the House.
Merkley faces a big decision. If he runs for President, he can’t under Oregon law run simultaneously for re-election to the Senate. He has told reporters he will make a final decision in the early part of this year. Meanwhile, Merkley has staged what amounts to a marathon of townhall meetings in Oregon before the new Congress convened this week. It is unclear whether he has taken steps to recruit a campaign staff or start fundraising in earnest. Political observers suggest it may take anywhere from $40 to $60 million for a Democratic presidential candidate to make it to Super Tuesday primaries in March, 2020.
Inslee received encouragement to throw his hat in the presidential ring in 2016 as one of the few Democratic governors to survive. He has campaigned around the country for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in 2018, giving him more exposure than usually accrues to a governor from the Pacific Northwest. Inslee is given credit for helping seven Democrats capture statehouses and assisting some Democratic incumbents such as Oregon Governor Kate Brown fend off well-financed GOP challengers.
There are indications Inslee is lining up donors to his political action committee and preparing to form a presidential exploratory committee, which is something Warren did this week as she moved closer to becoming an announced candidate. He also has amassed a list of more than 200,00 climate change supporters nationwide that could serve as a jumping off point for his candidacy.
The presidential primaries will have some other new twists. California and Texas have moved up their primary election dates in a bid to have a greater say about who emerges as party nominees. As big states with sprawling, expensive media markets, they pose special challenges for lesser known candidates without big campaign war chests.
Another challenge is the emergence of Beto O’Rourke, who lost his bid to unseat Texas Senator Ted Cruz while gaining a rabid national following and lengthy small-donor contributor list, and Harris, who represents California in the US Senate and received positive national exposure for her sharp questioning of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
The best thing going for Merkley and/or Inslee candidacies is a clear focus, which will be essential in a field of up to 20 candidates and a Democratic debate schedule that begins as early as this summer. Democratic voters – and GOP political strategists – will be watching closely to see who stands out from the pack based on substance and style and who has the best chance to go toe-to-toe with Trump in the general election.