Happy Halloween from the entire team at Elections Daily. This year’s theme is “Back from the Dead”. In accordance with our choice, we’ll take a look at three versatile Washington state politicians with some frighteningly-unexpected comebacks. Read on if you dare.
The late Senator Slade Gorton has one of the best comeback tales in Washington state’s political lore. Beginning his career over a century ago in the state House, Gorton rose through the ranks to become the chamber’s Majority Leader. In 1968, he flipped the Attorney General office into Republican hands by half a point, with a nine-point win in his native King County sealing the deal. He would be reelected twice more.
In 1980 he decided to run for Senate against incumbent Warren Magnuson. A Democratic institution in every sense, Magnuson had rarely faced competitive races since his initial election in 1944. Reagan’s Presidential landslide that year coincided with double-digit Republican gains in the Senate, sending many prominent Democrats home. Magnuson was one of them, losing by eight points as Gorton secured King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties.
1986 marked an environment change, with Reagan’s “six year itch” proving fatal for Republican Senators around the country. Gorton was no exception. Former Seattle Congressman and Transportation Secretary Brock Adams unseated him by two points, performing exceptionally well in King County while holding his own in the rest of the state.
After that loss, it seemed like Gorton was done. Only 58, the experienced politician had just lost his first statewide race. Nevertheless, he persisted with a determination to return to the Senate. The perfect opportunity arose in 1988, when Republican Dan Evans announced his retirement.
In the jungle primary, Gorton finished first with 36% of the vote. Democratic support was split on regional lines between Congressmen Mike Lowry 32% (Seattle) and Don Bonker 26% (Vancouver). Gorton beat Lowry by two points in November even as Michael Dukakis secured a narrow victory here in the Presidential race.
Since he was unable to win King County as in years past, the 1994 Almanac of American Politics credited Gorton’s strong performance in the traditionally-Democratic logging counties and the outstate (east of the Cascades) for his win.
Gorton easily won reelection in 1994 before losing an incredibly close reelection bid to former Congresswoman Maria Cantwell in 2000. During his tenure he got the last laugh on his former opponent Brock Adams, who retired in 1992 amid allegations of rape and sexual improprieties.
In some ways the turnover-rich 1980s period has yielded continuity, with long-time Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell continuing to amass seniority in a duo that is reminiscent of Scoop Jackson and Warren Magnuson.
After a short stint in the state House, 42-year-old Jay Inslee decided to run for the Republican-held 4th House district. Despite the open seat’s strong GOP lean, the youthful legislator managed to win the Bush +16 district in 1992, besting fellow State Representative Doc Hastings by a little over 3,000 votes.
The pathbreaking 1994 “Republican Revolution” struck Washington harder than the rest of the nation, with six of the state’s Democratic-held seats changing hands. Most surprising at the time was Speaker Tom Foley’s upset loss to first time candidate George Nethercutt in his Spokane-based 5th district. Foley was the first sitting speaker to lose reelection since Galusha Grow in 1863.
One of the five incumbents to go down that night, Inslee lost a rematch to Hastings by almost seven points as President Clinton’s unpopularity reverted the district to form. He drew support from Yakima and Kittitas counties again, but saw his support throughout the rest of the seat collapse beyond repair.
In 1996, Inslee pursued the Governorship but struggled to make any headway in the jungle primary as an obscure “had been” Congressman from outstate Washington. He ended up finishing 5th with around 10% of the vote, most of which came from Yakima County. Things must have seemed pretty low for his prospects after that beatdown, but he persevered.
1998 brought Inslee to Bainbridge Island, lying just to the west of Seattle. There he sought to defeat 1994 wave baby Rick White, who had previously beaten Maria Cantwell (we will get to that later). Anyhow, the Republican impeachment of President Clinton managed to backfire in the midterms that year, allowing the Democrats to make modest gains in the lower chamber. Inslee beat White in his new home by almost six points, returning a Clinton district to the Democratic fold. His comeback had been realized and he would go on to win six reelections.
With all that Congressional experience under his belt, Inslee was ready to try for the Governorship again in 2012. He did not face an easy path to becoming the state executive, with two term Attorney General Rob McKenna lying in wait; McKenna had been reelected by almost 20 points in 2008, even as Obama swept the state federally.
The two cleared the field in the jungle primary, with Inslee taking 47% to McKenna’s 43%. By the end of the brutally competitive fall campaign, he had narrowly overtaken McKenna in the polls. Too close to call on election night, the race harkened back to Christine Gregoire’s 129 vote victory over Dino Rossi in 2004. The veteran Congressman won by three points when all was said and done.
Inslee had easier reelections in 2016 and 2020, winning by nine and 13 points respectively. He even waged a Presidential campaign in 2020, a big deal for someone who never would have imagined standing on a primary debate stage when he lost reelection as a House freshman almost thirty years ago.
State Representative Maria Cantwell flipped the open 1st district blue in 1992 as a talented young politician with high hopes. Just two years later her expectations were shattered by Rick White, who brought the seat back into Republican hands by three points; Inslee would start his comeback by unseating White four years later.
Just 36 at the time of her defeat, Cantwell knew she wanted to get back into the game someday, but she was not quite sure how. Working in the private sector, she passed on challenging White in 1996 and 1998, waiting six years before announcing her political reentry with a challenge to Senator Slade Gorton.
Cantwell secured the bulk of Democratic support in the jungle primary, finishing ahead of Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn 37-13%. Polls throughout the campaign showed Gorton with narrow, consistent leads over the ex-Congresswoman, reaffirming the contest’s status as an uphill battle for her.
November brought an incredibly close result, with Cantwell concluding her change-oriented campaign with an upset against the long-time Washington politico by just 0.09% or 2,229 votes. Gorton retired from politics and Cantwell went on to win three stable reelections.