Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision to forgo a fourth-term bid will bring Washington its first open-seat gubernatorial contest since he won his first term in 2012.
The long-awaited announcement clears a political jam that has — electorally speaking — stagnated the upper tier of state politics for years, opening the door for a new generation of elected leaders.
But whether 2024 reshuffles a deck of familiar names or brings in wild cards remains to be seen.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz are widely expected to duke it out in a Democratic primary contest to succeed Inslee, though neither announced their plans Monday.
Meanwhile, state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, embattled and facing calls for his resignation after accusations of racist language and staff mistreatment, also announced Monday he will step aside after six terms.
Their moves are likely to generate a horde of candidates for the respective statewide offices, attracting state legislators and local elected officials, leading to even more incumbent-free seats up for grabs across the state.
And so on, down the line.
“Let the games begin,” Democratic political consultant Dean Nielsen said in a text message Monday.
In the governor’s race, Ferguson and Franz are by far the best-known likely contenders. They’re already tangling in a dispute before the state Public Disclosure Commission, where Franz backed a proposal to crimp Ferguson’s ability to transfer $2.8 million in leftover funds from his attorney general races to a gubernatorial campaign.
Both openly talked about running for governor in 2020, but stood down when Inslee decided to seek a third term after his failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. King County Executive Dow Constantine, who weighed a gubernatorial bid back then, recently bowed out of a 2024 run.
On the Republican side, Semi Bird, a military veteran and Richland School Board member, is already running and has raised about $50,000.
Raul Garcia, a Yakima doctor who made a last-minute run in the 2020 primary, is considering another bid. Both are scheduled to speak at a state Republican Party conference this weekend in Kennewick.
Republicans have been shut out in gubernatorial contests for a generation. John Spellman was the last Republican to win the office, in 1980. Loren Culp, the party’s candidate four years ago, lost by more than a half million votes. He had the worst showing in at least four decades for a GOP gubernatorial contender in King County.
Caleb Heimlich, the state Republican Party chair, said in an interview he sees potentially strong candidates emerging in some races, such as attorney general and lands commissioner.
“There are some opportunities there if we can consolidate behind one candidate,” he said, without naming specific contenders.
But Heimlich acknowledged the GOP needs a strong top of the ticket, including in the governor’s race, to help drive turnout for those lower-ballot races.
“There are a lot of pretty high-profile people who would make excellent candidates evaluating what that would look like for them in 2024,” he said. “I would say it remains to be seen if other people will emerge.”
For attorney general, assuming Ferguson departs, Democratic insiders were already talking about potential candidates including state Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, and U.S. Attorney Nicholas Brown.
Dhingra said Monday she is “very seriously” considering a run, pointing to her experience as a deputy King County prosecutor and her work in the Legislature on issues including data privacy and consumer protection. Brown declined to comment on his plans.
Others who have previously explored a run for the office include state Solicitor General Noah Purcell and state Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island.
Potential open-seat races for many of the state’s most powerful elected offices should give voters a shot at generation change, and a chance to debate what they want in a new set of leaders, said Crystal Fincher, a Democratic political consultant.
“I think [Inslee] being there so long created some interesting dynamics,” said Fincher. “The world that was there when he took office was very different than the world we live in today.”
In 2024, she said, “are people in the mood for an incumbent? Or an established person who has been an insider for so long? Or are they looking for more of an outsider?”
“Hilary and Bob are the names that have been tossed around. They both bring a ton of experience … is that going to work for them or against them?”
Inslee, speaking with reporters after a bill-signing ceremony Monday, said he’d only made up his mind not to run in the last week. He said he told some people Sunday about his decision, but declined to say who.
He said he’s comfortable stepping aside because of the progress he’s made in his three terms.
“I feel very energized every day when I go to work. I feel just as much energy today as I did the first day. But I do think there’s a season, a very good season, and the season right now, I think, is that having a first term, maybe is more important than having a fourth term.”
Seattle Times staff reporter David Gutman contributed to this report.