Jay Inslee’s Risky Bet for 2020

The Washington governor thinks a focus on climate change will win him the White House.

John Locher / AP

In the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential field, sticking out is hard. Whatever qualification makes a candidate seem special, another boasts the same distinctive trait or experience. Governors? A bunch of them are circling the race. Senators? The list of announced candidates keeps growing. Progressives, women, African Americans, midwesterners—the field has multiples of everything.

Except in the case of Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who will be the only climate-change candidate when he announces his bid for the presidency in Seattle on Friday morning. That’s how he thinks he’s going to win. “It’s less of a concern,” Inslee says of his singular focus on global warming, “than being totally ignored in a presidential race.”

Making his candidacy official, Inslee is aiming to make a splash, even without the big rollout or large staff some of his better-known competitors had coming into the race.

He’s counting on what’s going on in the world to help him catch up. And by making the announcement at a solar-installation company, he’s chosen his venue to make a point: This isn’t just about saving the planet, but about how much money can be made in moving toward clean energy.

“Whatever the situation is now, it’s going to be worse two years from now on the peril side, and it’s going to be better on the promise side through clean-energy jobs,” Inslee said in an interview in Washington, D.C., earlier in the week, after he’d already made his decision to run. “So the dynamic is, wherever we are today, by the time of the November election climate will be a more important issue in the electorate, I believe.”

He’ll call his campaign the “Climate Mission Tour,” and kick it off in Iowa, followed by stops in Nevada and California. Among his early backers: Bill Nye, as in Bill Nye the Science Guy, who’s made fighting climate change a major cause. “He’s a science-based guy,” Nye said of Inslee in an interview on Thursday evening, recalling how he first met him years ago on a kayaking trip when the governor was in Congress. “He can contribute a lot to getting progressives focused.”

Inslee has been preparing to run over the past two months, traveling to New Hampshire and Nevada in January. He’s put together a staff and a launch video produced by a couple whose previous clients include the musicians Ed Sheeran and Macklemore. But Inslee didn’t need to invest in polling or focus groups to see if he’s right about how panicked people are about climate change.

He has a February poll from the Center for American Progress that said the 2020 presidential race is wide open, and that climate change has become, in the survey’s words, “a key motivating issue.” Climate change was the top priority for 46 percent of the Democrats in the poll, behind only health care, at 47 percent. The Green New Deal and moving to 100 percent clean energy by 2050 had huge support, too. Having a clear plan for addressing the climate crisis, the pollsters wrote, “helps voters believe that a presidential candidate is serious and forward thinking.”

Inslee, who has been in politics for 30 years, said polls like that help give him a gut feeling that the voters are with him, and that they want more than just talk. He noted that he’s been focused on reducing carbon-dioxide emissions since his first congressional campaign, in 1992. He went on to win that Republican-leaning district, though he lost the seat two years later in a Republican wave.

“It is the issue; it is the primary issue; it is the foremost issue. This has to be the organizing issue of your administration,” he said of climate change. “It can’t be one agency; it can’t be check the box. It has to be the priority. I think it will be revealed who’s got the chops, who’s got the passion, and who’s willing to take the risk to run on this subject and say it is a priority.”

It’s early in the race, but Inslee starts significantly behind, jumping in as a mostly unknown weeks after other candidates made it official and months after many began seriously sketching out plans to win. He’ll also be behind in fundraising, though he will be the first announced 2020 Democratic candidate with an affiliated super PAC supporting him, despite the energy in the party against the big-money groups that has kept most other candidates from using them.

The point of his campaign, Inslee said, is building a national mandate for the major changes America would need to make to actually start addressing the climate crisis.

And for those who try to write him off as just a single-issue candidate, Inslee pointed out how many jobs there are in shifting to clean energy, and how much of a national-security issue it is for America to be able to sustain itself without being dependent on other countries for oil and gas.

“The beauty of it is, it’s not a single issue,” Inslee said. “It’s all-encompassing.”