Can a Republican really win the Washington governor’s race?

“When they say ‘we can’t win in Washington state’ — we can,” Reichert said in an interview in a spartan campaign office here last month. “You can if you’re the right candidate at the right time.”

Reichert carries significant name ID in the state’s most populous areas, both from his time in Congress and as sheriff of King County — home of both Seattle and Bellevue, a major outpost for some of the world’s largest tech companies. He was from the moderate wing of the party while in D.C. and may be tougher to paint as a MAGA diehard. And Reichert argues that the state’s struggles with crime and homelessness — a
particular crisis in King County
— and general lingering pessimism about the economy creates an opening.

Reichert’s candidacy will test the potency of tough-on-crime policies in blue states — and the degree to which voters will punish even well-known Republicans for sharing a ballot with former President Donald Trump, the party’s all-but-assured presidential nominee.

A victory would be massive for Washington Republicans, who have little power in the Pacific Northwest state. There hasn’t been a GOP governor in nearly 40 years, and there is no statewide elected Republican currently serving. (The last Republican to win statewide quit her job in 2021 to take a role in the Biden administration.) The GOP’s legislative minorities have further eroded since Trump took office. And a much-ballyhooed challenge to Democratic Sen. Patty Murray last year ended in a blowout.

Democrats are worried Reichert poses a real threat. A
November poll from the Northwest Progressive Institute
showed the race between Reichert and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the leading Democrat, as a jump ball. That “woke everyone up,” state Democratic Party Chair Shasti Conrad said. “Even among the political class, I would say there was some complacency.”

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee opted to not seek a historic fourth term, setting off a scramble earlier this year when he said he wasn’t running.

“When that happened, my phone just started ringing off the hook,” Reichert said. “The timing was right, the support was there. I felt called to do this, I felt motivated to do this, I felt an obligation.”

Part of his appeal to voters is his long public profile in the state. As sheriff of King County, Reichert helped catch the “Green River killer,” the infamous serial killer, in the early 2000s. He ran for Congress in 2004 and won that and the next six subsequent elections, even as voters in his district regularly voted for Democrats higher on the ticket. He was often ranked
as among the most bipartisan members
of the House and sometimes bucked his party, like voting to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military.

After he opted to not
run for another term in 2018
, Democrats flipped the seat in that year’s blue wave. They haven’t lost it since.

“My name ID in King County is near 65 percent, and in Seattle proper it’s about the same,” he said. “But it’s not just recognizing the name. People feel this connection to me in a personal way because of my experience, especially in the sheriff’s office, but also in Congress.”

Reichert said his campaign will focus on a triumvirate of issues: A “broken” criminal justice system, the economy and homelessness in the state. Reichert says the state is such an extreme outlier — he said Washington had the lowest per capita number of law enforcement in the nation — that those issues would resonate even though similar platforms have failed Republicans in other high-profile governor races in recent years.

It’s been, Reichert said, “years of wandering in the wilderness. The same government for years, and nothing has changed,” he said. “We’re fed up, and we want change.”

Governor races have been the last bastion of ticket-splitting across the country. But politics have become so polarized along national lines that it could suck away any crossover appeal Reichert might have.

Reichert will have to contend with a pair of dynamics that have sunk Republican gubernatorial candidates over the last two years: Trump and abortion. Democrats have signaled they would hammer Reichert over his self-described “pro-life” stance and plan on yoking him to the former president he could be sharing a ballot line with.

“Some of what the poll showed me is that people have forgotten who Reichert is, and we have to continue to remind them of who he is, what he stands for,” said Conrad, the Democratic Party chair. “He is a Republican in Trump’s America.”

Reichert has downplayed abortion since launching his bid, calling it settled law in Washington. (The procedure has been legal in the state since 1970.)

And he said the campaign will be decided on “local politics,” not the presidential race: “Our message is ‘I don’t care who the president is.’ We’re going to be able to work with anyone.”

He declined to endorse anyone in the presidential primary, and when asked whether he’d support the eventual Republican nominee, he said “that’s a decision I’m going to make when the time comes.”

Reichert and Ferguson — whose campaign did not make him available for an interview — still need to emerge from the all-party primary before turning toward a general election face-off.

There is another notable Republican in the contest — Semi Bird, a recalled school board member who has
some support from the MAGA wing of the party
— as is Democratic state Sen. Mark Mullet, who has
clashed with Inslee and party leadership
over taxes.

But Reichert and Ferguson are the frontrunners and widely expected to proceed to the general. Reichert has raised over $1.2 million since launching his bid. Ferguson — aided by a war chest from past statewide runs and the backing of a consolidated Democratic Party — has reported bringing in far more: $5.6 million.

Republicans have made a run at Pacific Northwest governorships recently. In the midterms, both parties pushed resources into an open-seat race in Oregon, where a viable third-party candidate lowered the percentage needed to win. But after months of spending, Democrat Tina Kotek won by 3.5 points.

Reichert says he’s confident this time is different.

“We’ve tried to remember the last time when a Republican had a 2 percent advantage early on in a campaign. I don’t know if that has happened before,” he said. “It is especially encouraging, and also unusual, which I think highlights the excitement around this campaign.”

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