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The impact of Jay Inslee’s climate-focused 2020 candidacy

Jay Inslee dropped out of the presidential contest. The fight for climate action is ramping up.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee. CREDIT: Sergio Flores/Getty Images
Washington Governor Jay Inslee. CREDIT: Sergio Flores/Getty Images

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is no longer vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, bringing an end to a candidacy devoted almost entirely to climate action.

But his departure comes as concern about climate change is galvanizing voters, pushing the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to consider sanctioning a debate devoted exclusively to the issue. Meanwhile, some of Inslee’s former rivals are unveiling their own ambitious plans to address global warming, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who released his long-awaited proposal the morning after Inslee dropped out.

Trailing in polls and shut out of the third round of Democratic debates, scheduled for September, Inslee announced Wednesday night that he was exiting the race. He said he will seek a third term as governor instead.

“It’s become clear that I’m not going [to] be carrying the ball, I’m not going to be the president, so I’m withdrawing tonight from the race,” Inslee told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

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The governor made the announcement the same day he released a sweeping plan to help revitalize rural communities and use agriculture as a tool to address climate change. Inslee released six major proposals overall, using global warming as a lens through which to discuss immigration, the economy, job creation, and systemic inequality.

Immediately following his exit, several candidates went out of their way to praise Inslee, lauding his singular focus on climate change and his commitment to elevating the issue.

Thank you [Inslee] for fighting every day to make sure that climate change remains a primary focus of this election,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wrote on Twitter. “Climate change is real and it’s a crisis—and I will keep fighting alongside you to take bold action before it is too late.”

With Inslee gone, some activists have expressed concern that climate issues may fall by the wayside. But others argue that he shifted the conversation significantly, pushing his competitors to distinguish themselves on climate action. Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, thanked Inslee “for setting the pace for our elected leaders on the climate crisis.” The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) said that Inslee set an “incredibly high bar” for discussing climate issues.

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“We have no doubt that Governor Inslee has played a crucial role in elevating the climate crisis to the top of the agenda within this primary, which we are confident will remain the case for the rest of the primary,” LCV President Gene Karpinski said in a statement.

Climate change remains central for Democrats, even without Inslee. One of his major demands was a DNC climate debate that would allow candidates to draw contrasts with one another on the issue. Two climate forums are planned for September, but neither is an official debate. The DNC has so far resisted calls for a designated climate debate, arguing that no issue should be elevated above others.

But that could change. On Thursday, the DNC is expected to consider two different resolutions, one calling for a formal debate and one that lends support to the two scheduled climate forums. While supporters of a climate debate have said they don’t expect it to win enough support given largely to opposition from DNC Chair Tom Perez, Washington State Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski told the Mercury News that she will press on anyway. Podlodowski is sponsoring the pro-debate resolution.

Even if no formal climate debate occurs, candidates are likely to continue pushing the conversation. Polling shows that voters are deeply concerned about climate change and want lawmakers to address the problem quickly.

On Thursday morning, Sanders became the latest 2020 contender to roll out a climate plan. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), former Vice President Joe Biden, and billionaire Tom Steyer are among the candidates to have released similar proposals, while Warren has pushed a slew of smaller-scale plans aimed at specific targets like decarbonizing the military and reducing emissions linked to agriculture.

Sanders’ plan stands out from those of his rivals. With a hefty price tag — $16.3 trillion — his vision for a Green New Deal would create 20 million jobs and completely zero out emissions by mid-century. The Green New Deal blueprint aims to decarbonize the economy swiftly through a 10-year mobilization, something Sanders also accounts for: Both electricity and transportation would be completely powered by renewable energy as of 2030 under his plan.

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With Inslee out of the race, Sanders now touts the most ambitious climate proposal. But the Washington governor indicated in a farewell interview with NYMag that he hopes his own plans gain traction among other candidates those still competing to be president.

“We’re not claiming copyright, so we’re hoping other candidates use it as a template going forward,” Inslee said. “There are hundreds of policy ideas for people to run with, so I hope they do.”