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Washington’s 'Blue Tide' creates challenge for McKenna

As the presidential candidates prepare for tonight's debate, polls show President Obama averages a 15-point advantage in Washington over Republican rival Mitt Romney. Washington’s open race for governor is much closer.

The two candidates in that contest met Tuesday night in Yakima for a fiery third debate. But the polls highlight a reality for Republican Rob McKenna: he’ll have to woo a good number of Obama voters if he’s to become Washington’s first GOP governor in nearly 30 years.

Each time the candidates for Washington governor meet, the same dance plays out. Democrat Jay Inslee tries to tie Republican McKenna to Governor Romney. And McKenna tries to tie Inslee to previous Washington governors with a "D" next to their name. The latest debate, in Yakima, was no different.

After McKenna said he doesn’t want a state where one-in-three residents are on Medicaid, Jay Inslee said, “Remember when Mitt Romney talked about the 47-percent that just weren’t sort of part of our family in a sense? And now my opponent says that this one out of three somehow should not have insurance.”

And after Inslee said he opposes a two-thirds requirement for tax increases McKenna responded, “Congressman Inslee did say that he’s 'not going to request taxes to be increased.' Well, that’s true, he doesn’t have to request it. The legislature will pass the tax increases if they get the chance to do so, and send them to his desk just like they’ve done with all the other governors.”

Trying to define your opponent is Politics 101. But longtime, non-partisan pollster Stuart Elway says in this race, Inslee has the advantage.

“The blue tide’s rising in Washington and it has been for the last six months or so.”

It’s not just that President Obama is doing well here. Elway’s been looking back over polls from previous years and noticed a trend that doesn’t bode well for McKenna.

Back in September of 2004, one respondent to Elway’s poll that month planned to vote a straight party ticket. Just one. Flash forward to September of this year and 34 percent of respondents said they were going to vote all Democrats or all Republicans.

Why does this matter?

“We keep looking for the Obama-McKenna vote and there is some crossover, but this is going to be a very partisan election,” Elways says.

He believes it’s still possible for McKenna to swim fast enough to stay out of the rising blue tide in Washington. But he says McKenna risks getting dragged down by national Republican figures like the governor of Wisconsin or Missouri’s Senate candidate.

“I’m watching this and I’m thinking he’s running not only against Jay Inslee, he’s running against Scott Walker and Todd Akin and that’s a hard assignment in this state, this year.”

At the debate in Yakima, McKenna called out Inslee for trying to nationalize the race.

“It’s very transparent and kinda funny actually.”

And reminded the audience more than once that Inslee served 15 years in Congress -- like here, in response to a question about Washington’s farm worker shortage.

“Well if Congressman Inslee were sincere about wanting comprehensive immigration reform, he should have stayed in Congress instead of quitting Congress halfway through his term.”

If Inslee appears vulnerable, it’s on the issue of taxes. McKenna frequently questions whether the Democrat can be trusted when he says he won’t raise taxes. Now, Inslee’s trying to turn the issue back on McKenna for endorsing something called a levy swap.

“It increases property taxes on hundreds of thousands of Washington homeowners and small businesses," Inslee said. "And it doesn’t raise any net money for schools. This is a gimmick that doesn’t help us move forward.”

McKenna responds that the idea is to increase the state’s share of property taxes while reducing the reliance in Washington on local school levies.

Despite Inslee’s narrow lead, this governor’s race is still in the toss-up category. At least according to the website Real Clear Politics. The candidates have two more scheduled debates and just five weeks to go until Election Day.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.