Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna easily advanced to the general election in Tuesday’s primary, setting up what promises to be one of the top gubernatorial contests in the country.
Inslee led in the vote count as of Tuesday night, with about 47 percent to McKenna’s 43 percent. Both men easily outpaced seven lesser-known rivals.
About half the votes remain to be counted in coming days as ballots in the all-mail election trickle in.
As results came in, Inslee told cheering supporters at his Seattle headquarters, “We’re going to win this in November.”
Taking the stage at a Bellevue gathering, McKenna compared the race to the Olympics: “The preliminaries are over, now on to the final!”
“We need a new direction,” McKenna said. “Do we keep electing the same people over and over who have been digging the budget hole deeper and deeper, or do we craft a sustainable budget?”
The primary outcome was never in doubt, as Republicans and Democrats have long looked ahead to the November matchup.
While primary results do not usually predict the general-election outcome, McKenna’s tally of 35 percent in King County was far below the 51 percent he received there in the 2008 primary for attorney general.
Overall, the results mirrored the state’s so-called “Cascade Curtain,” with McKenna leading in Eastern and Central Washington and Inslee ahead in the more populous Puget Sound counties.
The race has been named the hottest in the country by some national political observers and is likely to draw tens of millions in outside spending.
“Washington has been fundamentally a Democratic state, but I think Republicans got the best challenger they can hope for with McKenna,” said Jessica Taylor, senior analyst with the Rothenberg Political Report.
McKenna is counting on voter discontent with decades of Democratic control in Olympia.
The last Republican governor of Washington was John Spellman, who won in 1980 only to lose a re-election bid four years later.
McKenna, the two-term attorney general, has focused heavily on a pledge to reverse a slide in state support for public schools and universities. He argues the state could free up billions of dollars in additional money for education by holding down growth of the rest of the state budget.
Coming across as cerebral and serious, if a bit stiff, McKenna has cast himself as the more substantive candidate — one willing to put out specific targets, for example, in his education-funding plans.
“Given how the economy is, we think that the people of this state are ready for some serious big ideas, and that’s what Rob is proposing,” said Randy Pepple, McKenna’s campaign manager.
But Inslee, who resigned after winning seven terms as a congressman from Bainbridge Island, is trying to grab the outsider label away from McKenna.
“We believe Jay represents a pretty clear break from business as usual in Olympia,” said Inslee’s communications director, Sterling Clifford, pointing to Inslee’s proposal to institute new “lean management” principles in state agencies.
Inslee’s most relentless focus, though, has been his jobs plan. He proposes new tax breaks for selected industries that he says have great potential for job growth.
An affable former attorney and high-school sports standout, Inslee’s campaign is largely built on his ability to tell voters he shares their values — and that McKenna does not.
“He’s projecting himself as someone who you would enjoy getting to know, someone you can relate to and trust,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz.
The key tussle will come over voters in King County and Seattle, who’ve trended increasingly Democratic in recent years.
McKenna needs to draw enough votes — 40 percent or more — in King County to have a chance to win statewide, his aides said.
As a former attorney who represented the Bellevue area on the Metropolitan King County Council before his current job, McKenna has cultivated a reputation as a moderate who can attract the support of independent voters.
But Democrats hope to change perceptions of McKenna, pointing to his stands against gay marriage and his participation in the lawsuit trying to invalidate President Obama’s health care overhaul.