Todd Schaefer

Todd Schaefer

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This weekend, our governor, Jay Inslee, is the keynote speaker at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame celebration. Ostensibly, he’s there as head of the Democratic Governors’ Association, to help rally the troops (and fill coffers) to win governorships away from the Republicans, who gained seats during the Obama era.

Iowa is one of those states — a purple one whose government has gone full-Trump — and whose incumbent, Kim Reynolds, has embraced the president and steered their policies sharply to the right, even as the president’s popularity there has fallen. She also is seen as vulnerable, having stepped into the post from Lt. Gov., after Terry Branstad was appointed Ambassador to China.

But given Iowa holds the first contests in the presidential nomination process, and that venue has often been a forum for presidential aspirants, speculation is raging that Inslee may be prepping for a presidential bid. Our state’s Republican Party even attacked him for leaving the state to attend, indicating they at least think there’s something to it. And notably, if coincidentally, his second term ends in 2020.

Along with Inslee’s strident opposition to President Trump, and related national headlines challenging him and some of his policies, it is another chance for him to receive some national attention as a contrast in how to govern. His people were quick to note that this isn’t an omen and he’s focusing on the upcoming election, not the next one.

Washington hasn’t had a serious (or even semi-serious) presidential contender since Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson ran in the 1972 and 1976 primaries. One upside for Inslee is he left the hyper-partisan and despised cesspool of D.C. politics in 2012, and can point to some successes as chief executive of this state, including having to work with the opposition in the legislative branch. Then again, that formula didn’t exactly help John Kasich two years ago.

Inslee obviously faces an uphill battle given the Democratic field will be crowded, possibly even larger than the record-setting 17 who ran for the GOP last time. His public profile is lower than other “mentioneds” and presumed wannabes like Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or Kirsten Gillibrand. But 1976 also proved that a lesser-known governor can emerge from the pack in early, small states like Iowa and New Hampshire and even win the White House (especially after a scandal)

Whether Inslee’s progressive credentials and signature issues — climate change, and a more globalist and sympathetic approach to trade and immigrants — are the formula to gain momentum and distinguish him from others is hard to know. And whether they are enough to unite a divided party, much less appeal to independents and some Trump voters from 2016 is another question entirely.

But in other respects, our state does have some parallels with larger political and demographic trends going on in the country right now, and he has governing and campaign experience at both the congressional and state levels that could prove useful. Still, he hasn’t faced the likes of Donald Trump and his Tweetstorms. Before that, however, he needs to help show that the Democratic wave in 2018 — especially in the governors’ mansions — crashes high up the shore rather than weakly in the shallows.

Todd Schaefer is a Central Washington University political science professor. Left and Right is a column provided by CWU professors to present a variety of political viewpoints.

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