The themes of the first gubernatorial debate between incumbent Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican challenger Bill Bryant tonight were echoes of what we're hearing on the national stage between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Essentially: "We're making progress and we have to keep going" vs "Everything is bad and you should feel bad."
Bryant, a former port commissioner running as a moderate Republican, was all doom and gloom. In his opening and closing statements, he characterized Washington State as a camp site that had been "trashed," invoking the "leave it better than you found it" theme. Inslee was all optimism, criticizing Bryant for the garbage-strewn campsite metaphor and saying, "The potential of the state of Washington is unlimited."
The hourlong debate in Spokane hit on familiar issues—K-12 education funding, minimum wage, job creation, the environment—but offered few new policy ideas for solving the state's problems. Inslee is largely uninspiring, but he has a significant advantage: He's raised nearly three times as much money as Bryant, he's ahead in recent poll, and he's leading a state that hasn't put a Republican in the governor's mansion since 1985.
During the debate, Inslee and Bryant both lamented the state's lack of education funding, but offered little in the way of specific solutions. Inslee praised the billions the state legislature has put toward education already, though it will cost billions more to satisfy the state supreme court.
Bryant criticized Inslee for the mistaken early release of thousands of state prisoners, transportation problems, and state departments he characterized as "a mess." He said job creation across the state has been too concentrated in the "Bainbridge to Bellevue" corridor, a message he's been hitting hard as he tries to appeal to more rural and moderate parts of the state.
The two split on the statewide minimum wage, which would be gradually increased from $9.47 to $13.50 if Initiative 1433 passes this fall. I-1433 would also give workers up to seven days a year of paid sick time. Inslee supports the initiative; Bryant believes the minimum wage should be set on a regional, not statewide, basis. When Bryant said a minimum wage hike doesn't make sense for smaller cities, Inslee argued the current minimum isn't enough to live off anywhere in Washington.
Throughout the campaign, Bryant has pledged to institute a temporary moratorium on all new regulations until his administration has a chance to evaluate all the state regulations already in place. As Bryant made both that pledge and said he and Inslee agreed on the need to address oil trains traveling through Washington, Inslee called him out. Environmental protection, Inslee pointed out, is achieved through regulation.
The closest to "fun" the debate got was when the candidates got the chance to ask each other a question. When Bryant poked at Inslee, "What was your biggest failure?" Inslee shot back, "Taking that check you gave to me when I ran for Congress." (When he got around to a serious answer, Inslee said he "regrets" the state's homelessness problem.)
Inslee, predictably, used the moment to try to tie Bryant to Trump, whom Bryant refused to denounce until this week. Inslee asked Bryant what "virtues and assets" Trump had that kept Bryant from denouncing him sooner. Bryant, in a bit of revealing explanation on a topic he's been avoiding, said he was worried about alienating people who were drawn to Trump because they felt ignored by government. Bryant said he was afraid those voters would "think I had abandoned them too, and that was heartbreaking for me."
Or, put another way:
With a focus on the economy, the debate didn't hit on many social issues. Inslee said he believed workers should have paid family leave, which the state has been floundering on, though he offered no specific plan for how to achieve that. Bryant, similarly, pledged to make childcare more affordable, but then pivoted to criticizing Inslee's management of the state human services department. In his effort to play the moderate, Bryant has avoided issues like abortion—a topic he wasn't asked about tonight, even as members of his party spend time in Olympia trying to roll back Washington women's rights.
"My agenda is not partisan. It's not ideological," said Bryant—a man who is running in a partisan race with the support of the state Republican party and the money of hard-core conservatives. "It's just about coming together and getting stuff done."
Watch the full debate here.