OLYMPIA — Democrat Jay Inslee secured victory Friday in Washington’s race for governor, triumphing over his Republican rival after a grueling campaign that drew more than $40 million in spending.
GOP candidate Rob McKenna conceded defeat Friday night after late ballot returns failed to turn in his favor as the campaign had hoped. Inslee, a former congressman who first ran for governor in 1996, now sustains roughly three decades of Democratic control at the top of Washington state government.
Inslee thanked McKenna for what he described as a gracious conversation Friday night and said the state needs to unite to deal with the challenges of the day.
“It’s time to go build a working Washington,” Inslee said. Let’s get to work.”
Inslee won the seat on a message of economic growth, vowing to invest in specific clusters of industries such as green energy and life sciences. He also emphasized his goals of making government more efficient and that he would be able to rebalance the state’s budget without new taxes.
Despite his moderate message in this Democratic-leaning state, Inslee well underperformed President Barack Obama, who was winning the state by 13 percentage points. Inslee was winning Friday by a 51-49 margin.
Of the state’s 12 daily newspapers, 11 of them endorsed McKenna, and even current Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire had expressed skepticism about Inslee’s vow to fund education without taxes. She supported Inslee’s candidacy, however.
McKenna had also cast himself as a moderate with a plan to increase funding for education. Still, he found himself forced to explain why he joined other Republican attorney generals in a challenge to Obama’s health care law, and he opposed the passage of gay marriage during a year in which Washington voters approved it.
McKenna’s campaign had held out hope this week that late ballots would break in their favor. But many of the counties who posted updated results Friday night showed McKenna actually performing worse than he did earlier in the week. McKenna conceded defeat.
Randy Pepple, who managed McKenna’s campaign, said they struggled in part due to how poorly the party’s presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, did in Washington state.
“I think we ran a good race. I think we talked about issues that are important,” Pepple said. “I’m pleased with everything except the outcome.”
While the GOP has come close in recent gubernatorial elections in Washington — most notably the 2004 race in which Dino Rossi lost to Gregoire by 133 votes — the party hasn’t won the race since 1980. Voters ousted that candidate, John Spellman, at the end of his first time, around the time McKenna was student body president at the University of Washington.
Republicans had been cultivating McKenna as a potential gubernatorial candidate for years, as he worked his way from the King County Council to attorney general. In that seat, he won 59 percent of the vote in 2008.
Inslee grew up in the Seattle area but built roots on the eastern side of the state, where he got his start as an attorney. Appealing to voters in the Republican-friendly territory of eastern Washington, Inslee talked on the campaign trail and in interviews about his experiences prosecuting drunk drivers and growing alfalfa.
Inslee won a seat in Congress on the eastern side of the state but lost the job in the 1994 Republican sweep. He and his family moved west to Bainbridge Island, and Inslee took his first run at the governor’s seat in 1996 but lost in a primary to eventual Gov. Gary Locke.
Seeking a different seat in Congress, Inslee won in 1998 and held the post for more than a decade, becoming a leader in clean energy issues.
Clean energy also became a focus of Inslee’s campaign for governor this year. He vowed to focus investments on that industry and others — such as life sciences and agriculture — to stimulate job growth.
To deal with Washington’s unbalanced budget, Inslee said the state would bring in extra money from economic growth.
He also vowed to seek savings in the health care industry and make government more efficient by following “lean management” practices.
Inslee is already working on forming a team to help him transition into office. But he also planned to give his staff some rest after a grueling campaign and to take a breather himself.
“At the top of the list is: enjoy this moment,” Inslee said.