Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has emerged as a fierce critic of President Donald Trump. The Democrat has hit the cable news circuit and blasted the president over immigration, health care, climate change.
In doing so, Inslee’s developed a national profile.
But this is just his warm up act. Next year Inslee may get even more visibility. That’s because in December he will become chair of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA). He’s currently serving as vice chair.
Inslee clearly sees this upcoming role in the context of the resist Trump movement.
“I’ve talked to people who are intensely interested in having a pushback against Donald Trump,” Inslee said in an interview. “And the place to do that is in the governors’ races.”
Next year will be a big year for governors’ races with 36 contests nationwide.
So what will this mean for Inslee as chair of DGA?
“Of course the Democrats are going to want to try to maximize the number of governorships they could win next year,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a politics and elections newsletter published by the University of Virginia.
“The DGA is a big part of that,” said Kondik. “So that makes Inslee a very important person in the 2018 campaign.”
Inslee prepares to take on the job of DGA chair at an interesting moment in history. Democrats hold just 16 governorships nationwide — a historic low. Republicans have made steady gains since 2010 and currently control 33 governorships. The governor of Alaska is an independent.
Inslee’s job will be to try to reverse that trend. He’s already got a joke about the DGA’s voter turnout operation.
“We have a chairman that is incredibly effective at turning out Democrats. His name is Donald Trump,” Inslee said.
Jokes aside, Republicans acknowledge they’re on defense heading into 2018. Not because of the president, but because they have to defend so many seats.
“We’re victims of our own success,” Republican Governors Association (RGA) Communications Director Jon Thompson said.
He doesn’t accept the assumption that 2018 — a mid-term election year with a Republican in the White House — will be a good year for Democrats. In fact, he accused Inslee and other Democratic governors of overconfidence bordering on obnoxiousness when it comes to their prospects.
“We’ve seen many, many times that governors’ races are harder to nationalize. They’re harder to connect to Washington,” Thompson said. “They’re not like a Senate or Congressional race.”
Republicans hold one clear advantage: money. In 2014, the RGA outspent the DGA nearly two-to-one, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Inslee will face pressure to try to narrow that gap leading up to the 2018 election.
He’s already gotten a taste of fundraising for the DGA.
For instance, in April 2015 Inslee flew to Los Angeles for a day of fundraising meetings. According to an itinerary obtained through a public records request, Inslee met with a representative of the Disney Corporation. He was also scheduled to meet with other Hollywood executives, including film producer Lawrence Bender, best known for producing Quentin Tarantino films.
Inslee said he didn’t recall details of that trip, but added, “I will do trips that are predominantly about raising funds for the DGA, no question about that.”
The DGA is likely to raise more than $100 million for 2018 from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. Previous top donors to the DGA with headquarters or major operations in Washington state include Microsoft, Amgen and Boeing.
Inslee insists that his interactions with big-time donors don’t influence his work as governor.
“You can rest easy not worrying about that,” he said. “I’ve said ‘no’ to many, many people who have written significant contributions to groups that I support. And if you can’t do that, you ought not to be in public life.”
But meeting national donors and playing a more high-profile party role could help Inslee if he aspires to higher office. He’s already been mentioned by CNN as a possible presidential candidate in 2020.
“If things go well for Inslee next year and he becomes more of a national figure one would think that could only help if he decides to pursue a presidential run,” said Kondik of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
When asked if he’s going to run for president, Inslee’s answer is one word: ‘no.’
This story was produced in collaboration with The Seattle Times.