Inslee for president? Could be, though he just lost a big climate fight back home

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a potential 2020 presidential contender, came to Washington, D.C., Wednesday to tout a “historic night” for Democrats in statehouses around the country. But he took a big loss at home on a signature issue.

Inslee, a staunch advocate for increased environmental regulations and a leader in the fight against climate change, saw one of his pet projects snuffed out on Election Day.

Washington state voters appeared likely to reject Initiative 1631, which would have imposed the nation’s first carbon fee on large polluters, generating revenue that would be used to clean up the environment. The initiative trailed 56 to 44 percent as of Wednesday afternoon.

“Obviously we would liked to have had that pass, (but) we were up against about $31 million of big oil company (money) that obfuscated some of the complexities of the initiative,” Inslee said at a briefing for the Democratic Governors Association, which he chairs.

Voters’ rejection of the carbon fee was the latest in a recent string of climate-related defeats for Inslee, who failed to get a carbon tax vote in Washington’s Democratic-controlled legislature earlier this year. In 2016, voters nixed another carbon fee ballot measure.

Inslee has been floated as one of many names who could be part of a crowded field seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. He campaigned for Democratic candidates in the early presidential voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire before Tuesday’s midterm election, and has done little to quell speculation.

In October, he told POLITICO that he was “not ruling out a run.”

When asked by McClatchy at the Democratic governors’ event if he was willing to say more about a 2020 campaign, he said, “uh, no.”

Earlier, an Inslee spokesman sketched out a vision of a presidential candidate who sounds a lot like Inslee himself.

Inslee “is committed to making sure we have a Democratic candidate in 2020 that will put fighting climate change and transitioning to a clean energy economy front-and-center in their campaign and the national dialogue as a front-burner issue,” spokesman Jamal Raad said.

“There’s no doubt” that Inslee would make climate change the key issue in a presidential run, said Ron Dotzauer, a Seattle-based political strategist and former Democratic consultant.

“It is the cornerstone of whatever he’s going to be talking about. It’s always been his cornerstone,” Dotzauer said. “You always go to your sweet spot, and so that’s where he would go.”

But Dotzauer doesn’t think the losses have chipped away at the decades-long reputation Inslee has built as an eager leader in the battle against climate change.

The carbon fee’s passage “could have spiked his credibility even more,” he said. But “in terms of what his ambitions might be, I don’t know that (its failure) has an adverse impact.”

Still, Dotzauer is not sure a presidential campaign pinned on the environment has much chance of success. Even in liberal Washington, Inslee couldn’t get carbon initiatives approved. Would an environmental appeal have a chance in a national campaign?

The environment is “not a top-of-mind issue,” Dotzauer said. The issues voters care about are “health care, and it’s immigration and it’s the economy.”

Inslee would have other problems, too. He doesn’t have the same name recognition as higher-profile contenders, like former Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent-Vermont. And there’s a geographic issue.

“You’re coming from Washington state, and that’s a big liability,” Dotzauer said. “You can’t get farther away from the epicenter of politics, except if you’re in Alaska or Hawaii.”

Alex Hays, a Republican strategist based in Tacoma, thinks the notion of President Inslee is likewise far-fetched.

“It is irrational for Jay Inslee to think about running for the presidency,” said Hays, who said Inslee’s performance on the campaign trail would be akin to Secretary of Energy Rick Perry’s, who at a 2011 debate was memorably unable to name a government agency he wanted to eliminate.

If Democrats had performed better in governors races in the midterm and the carbon fee had passed, “he could claim that he was now moving forward on this progress, he could have built a ramp.”

In the meantime, Inslee is undeterred by the carbon fee loss, and will continue working in the arena he knows best — the environment. He said a new state legislature will help him advance climate change legislation in January.

“I’m very confident about that, because we know we have multiple tools in the toolkit to help fight climate change,” he said.

Kellen Browning, 202-383-6102, @kellen_browning