When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee heads to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state of New Hampshire later this month to test the 2020 waters, he might want to consider adding an apology tour.
Inslee’s decision while he chaired the Democratic Governors Association not to invest in New Hampshire’s competitive governor’s race last year still burns some of the state’s leading Democrats. Ray Buckley, the New Hampshire Democratic Party chair, said the move was so surprising that state Democrats assumed Inslee had abandoned any 2020 aspirations.
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Under Inslee, the DGA picked up seven seats in 2018 — a record number for Democrats in the last two decades. Yet in the race that mattered most in New Hampshire, the umbrella governors group was nowhere to be found. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Molly Kelly ultimately lost 53 percent to 46 percent in what otherwise turned out to be a strong Democratic year.
The decision not to spend in New Hampshire is likely to dog Inslee’s upcoming travel to the state for a fundraiser with local Democrats and two public events on college campuses. When Inslee’s first visit to the state this year was announced, longtime Democratic political operative Judy Reardon publicly dinged the governor over Twitter for his “terrible judgment” and for appearing with Kelly at an event last fall but never actually steering any money to her campaign.
“Nobody knows who Jay Inslee is in New Hampshire, so his coming to do a press event in New Hampshire wasn’t for Molly Kelly’s benefit, it was for his benefit,” said Reardon, a former state legislator and former counsel to Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
She panned Inslee’s past boasts about the DGA spending decisions on his watch.
“You spent $130 million to $150 million — are you serious? And you couldn’t spend a dime to help Molly Kelly win her race?” Reardon said, referring to roughly the amount the DGA raised in 2017-18 election cycle. “I’d love to see the breakdown on how much they spent on losing gubernatorial races in other states. My hunch is a fraction of that would have been a help in New Hampshire.”
Buckley told POLITICO that he would meet with Inslee just like he would with any other potential 2020 candidate who comes through the state and that Inslee would ultimately get a fair shake. But he said local Democrats are still scratching their heads over Inslee’s decision not pump money into Kelly’s campaign against incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.
“I think some folks in New Hampshire had concluded that since they had made a decision at the DGA not to assist the Democratic gubernatorial campaign in New Hampshire, that he wasn’t running. So it might have taken a few people by surprise that he still expressed interest because usually, the DGA is very supportive of Democratic candidates for their first race here in New Hampshire,” Buckley said.
Democrats were especially miffed, Buckley said, because polling showed Kelly within one point of Sununu a week before the election. As the DGA held back, the Republican Governors Association plowed more than $800,000 into the race.
“They knew based on the same polling as we did but they chose not to play,” Buckley said of the DGA. “I just think people were surprised, disappointed. But maybe they knew something that we didn’t know. Hopefully, they’ll fill us in on that and then we move on.”
The blowback against Inslee is unusual since the chairmanship of both parties’ national gubernatorial campaign committees is often utilized as a springboard to a presidential run. And that dimension of the job often results in favorable treatment to the early states. In 2014, for example, as then-chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Chris Christie showered Iowa with $2.3 million in media and direct contributions to boost then-Gov. Terry Branstad’s reelection campaign. The Christie-led RGA spent even more in New Hampshire for unsuccessful GOP nominee Walt Havenstein.
The DGA didn’t completely abandon Kelly in 2016. The organization did spend money on a private poll of the race for Kelly in the fall, according to two Democratic officials with knowledge of the survey, and it found Kelly lagging well behind Sununu.
Inslee also hosted a fundraiser for Kelly in Seattle, according to a Democrat with knowledge of the DGA’s fundraising events.
But the DGA did not spend a cent on television advertising for Kelly — a stark contrast to the $645,000 the RGA spent on ads for Sununu, according to Advertising Analytics. And in the final few weeks of the race, multiple internal polls on both sides showed the contest had tightened. Kelly personally pleaded with Inslee and the DGA to pour more money into the race saying that it was still winnable, according to Democrats with knowledge of those conversations.
Inslee, according to those Democrats, stressed he still supported Kelly but his hands were tied.
“Governor Inslee is proud to have led the Democratic Governors Association to its most successful cycle in 36 years, flipping 7 gubernatorial seats from red to blue,” said Jamal Raad, a spokesman for the governor. “He enjoyed working closely with Molly Kelly and to personally campaign for her election right after the primary.”
One GOP campaign official involved in the governor’s race said Republicans were taken aback by the DGA’s decision to forego an investment in the contest.
“We were extremely surprised that the DGA did not invest more resources in the race, especially in the closing days,” the official said. “Instead, the DGA invested resources in places like Alaska, a race that was already lost for them. And they invested significant resources in states like Rhode Island, which ended up being a blowout for Gov. Raimondo. I still think even with resources by Dems, Sununu would have still won. But if DGA would have invested significant resources from the beginning, it could have been a different outcome.”
Still, the decision to stiff Kelly wasn’t completely unwarranted. With its limited resources, the DGA was forced to make hard choices about where to direct its dollars. In New Hampshire, Sununu enjoyed high approval ratings and a formidable warchest going into the election cycle.
“Running against Sununu was honestly tough and everyone knew that,” said former Democratic state Sen. Burt Cohen. “That was no secret.”
Howard Dean, a former DGA chair and presidential candidate, said he isn’t sure who, if anyone, is to blame but expected Inslee to face frustration from New Hampshire Democratic voters as he feels out the state ahead of 2020.
“I happen to think that Molly was a great candidate and I think she could have won,” Dean said. “A lot of my New Hampshire friends agree with me. I can’t get into the merits of this argument but the thing that interests me is because it’s New Hampshire they have a special role in making people’s lives miserable after the fact.”
Brandon Hall, a veteran Democratic consultant, said Inslee’s tenure at the DGA clearly focused on helping the organization win governor’s races — and not his own political ambition.
“If he was in that position while thinking about running for president and he was making decisions based on where the DGA should invest based on his own personal politics rather than the organization, that would be a problem,” Hall said of the governor. “He did not do that.”
The Democratic Governors Association is routinely outraised by its Republican counterpart which pushes the Democratic organization to be strategic about its spending, said Nathan Daschle, who served as DGA executive director from 2007 to 2010.
“It’s often the case that after an election people in state have a different view of the prospect’s the losing candidate had versus people in D.C. So I think this is pretty common,” Daschle said, going on to stress that DGA had an “incredible” election year.
Daschle added that the DGA “often has a much higher burden to have very surgically strategic investments. They don’t have the luxury of throwing around lots of money. So every single dollar has to be well vetted and has to go where you get the best return.”