Commentary: How Donald Trump, of All People, Might Determine Washington's Next Governor


Democratic Party politics around here, which is to say all politics of late, has been a bit like the old Soviet Politburo. You wait your turn for this post or that, and then the whole party gets in line.

It's what happened the last time Washington had an open seat for governor, in 2012. The party fielded one candidate only, then-Congressman Jay Inslee, and no Democrat has seen fit to challenge him since.

That polite party pecking order is one reason why the state's top three elected officials — Inslee and our two U.S. senators — have held their posts for a combined 62 years now.

So what's happening in the race for governor now counts as a sea change, or at least a fresh breeze blowing through musty hallways. It's suddenly shaping up to be the most wide-open, contested statewide primary among Democrats going back nearly 30 years.

The entrance into the race this past week of moderate state senator and pizzeria owner Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, means there are now three legitimate Democratic contenders. He joins a field that includes the presumptive "next-in-line" candidate, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, as well as state Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, known for her environmental focus and forest fire fighting.

The last time a pileup like this happened on the left was the governor primary of 1996, when then-King County Executive Gary Locke beat out fellow Democrats Jay Inslee (yep, he ran for governor way back then, too) and Seattle Mayor Norm Rice. What's notable about that campaign is Locke won the primary with only 23.6% of the vote, while a Republican, state Sen. Ellen Craswell, squeaked into the general election with just 15.3%. (Locke won the final easily.)

We've adopted a top-two primary since then, meaning both finalists now could be Democrats.

But the race may hinge on two things Democrats don't typically care to think about — Republican voters, and the looming shadow of Donald Trump.

"There's a very real chance that Republicans could essentially decide which Democrat moves into the governor's mansion," was how the Washington Observer politics newsletter put it this past week.

The reason is that there may not be a major GOP presence in the campaign. If the party fields another slate of conspiracy theorists, grifters and constitutionalist gun nuts, as it did in the 2020 campaign that nominated Police Chief Loren Culp, it may leave middle-of-the-road, non-MAGA voters casting about for somewhere, anywhere, to go.

Enter Mullet.

"He's a bit of a wild card," says Ron Dotzauer, head of the Seattle politics and lobbying firm Strategies 360. "Business folks and moderates are going to be looking to back someone, and it's probably not going to be the Republican — whoever that is."

Mullet is trying to be a political unicorn: the socially liberal fiscal conservative. He votes for abortion rights and assault weapon bans, but against new taxes. His candidacy will be a test whether such a middle lane even exists in polarized politics anymore.

With a crowded field it might be possible to make it into the general election by winning as little as 20%, or less, of the primary vote. So the lane doesn't have to be that wide.

As for Democratic voters, they're going to get something they amazingly haven't had in an election for one of the big three statewide offices in several decades: a choice.

Mullet went right after his own party's stagnant hierarchical system in his announcement this past week.

"Every governor for the last 30 years has been a lawyer, with the same old solutions and ways of thinking," he said. "Lawyers are good at finding ways to sue people, while small business owners are good at creating jobs and finding ways to save money."

He's got a point, no? The problem with it, though, is that Ferguson has excelled at suing one person in particular — who also happens to be "the most hated politician for Democrats in this country's history," as Dotzauer put it.

Ferguson will happily tell you the story: He sued the Trump administration 99 times! He still keeps a page at the attorney general's official website devoted to them all. The most famous one came just 10 days into Trump's presidency, when Ferguson beat back Trump's bigoted Muslim travel ban, winning a nationwide restraining order.

Ferguson's campaign launch video includes a clip of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow chortling at how Ferguson "absolutely cut the Trump administration off at the knees." That memory is catnip to nervous Democrats.

If Republicans had cut ties with Trump, either by convicting him in the Jan. 6 impeachment or by simply moving on to more reputable standard-bearers, the story of Bob and his 99 lawsuits could have been old stale news by now.

If Trump makes the ballot, though, or is even a threat to do so, Democrats seem most likely to rally hard behind Ferguson. If the election itself is an existential crisis for democracy, are you gonna go with the brawler Trump fighter? Or the lands official or the pizza shop owner?

It would be yet another bitter irony of the local GOP's catastrophic misadventures with Trump if it ends up fueling the rise of their least favorite official on the scene after Jay Inslee. And it would also be richly deserved.