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Jay Inslee launches a climate-focused 2020 campaign

Illustration of Jay Inslee holding planet earth
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee jumped into the 2020 White House race Friday — and his longshot candidacy will test a big question: whether there's a political opening for someone who puts climate change at the heart of their campaign.

Why it matters: Global warming has long been a second-tier topic in national elections, but Inslee's candidacy could change that if he somehow gains traction in the crowded Democratic field or pushes higher-profile candidates to emphasize climate topics even more.

  • "We’re the first generation to feel the sting of climate change. And we’re the last who can do something about it," Inslee said in a launch video this morning that emphasizes jobs and his decades of work on the topic.
"He is going to put climate as the clear number one issue. No major party candidate in American history has done that. The times demand that climate is the top priority because if it’s not, it’s not going to get done."
— Jared Leopold, a senior campaign adviser to Inslee

Details: Inslee hasn't announced a lot of policy specifics yet, though one noteworthy thing is that he wants to kill the Senate filibuster. According to his campaign, Inslee's "climate mission" will rest on 4 big themes:

  • Accelerate a transition to "100% clean energy" and net-zero emissions with plans targeting electricity, transportation, buildings, industry and agriculture.
  • Creating "millions of good-paying jobs over the next 10 years" via investments in modern infrastructure and much more.
  • "Fighting for environmental justice and economic inclusion," including work with low-income, indigenous and communities of color.
  • "Ending fossil fuel giveaways" and moving away from fossil fuels while "protecting workers and diversifying the local economies that depend on them today."

The state of play: The case for Inslee's climate-focused candidacy is stronger than ever in some ways.

  • That's partly thanks to a spate of recent reports — notably a major UN scientific study last fall — on the risks of global warming, and partly because of aggressive White House efforts to dismantle federal climate policies.
  • Also, other than perhaps Bernie Sanders, none of the candidates has made global warming and clean energy a focus of their careers like Inslee, who served in the House from the 1990s until running for governor in 2012.

Yes, but: Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod said a campaign built around climate change may not create a wide enough "lane" and constituency.

  • "That’s not necessarily a reliable enough path because every Democratic candidate who is seriously running and is a top-tier contender is going to address climate change," said Elrod, who headed strategic communications for Hillary Clinton's 2016 run.
  • Several high-profile candidates have been talking about the issue on the stump amid energy on the left around the Green New Deal, which is already backed by a half-dozen candidates.
  • "The urgency of the moment and banging on that drum I think is critically important right now," Elizabeth Warren recently told the popular liberal podcast Pod Save America.

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