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A tight governor's race and Gaza: 4 takeaways from Washington Democrats’ convention

 Bob Ferguson is seen speaking to a crowd. He is on stage in front of a blue background. There are signs in front of and behind him that say "Washington State Democrats"
Jeanie Lindsay
Northwest News Network
Washington Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Bob Ferguson gave a brief speech at the State Democrats' convention in Bellevue Saturday, June 22, 2024. He warned his party that the race for governor will likely be close and drew clear distinctions between him and his leading Republican opponent.

The Washington State Democratic Party spent their biennial convention over the weekend strategizing to win in November. The somewhat muted event stood in stark contrast to the rancorous Republican state convention earlier this year.

Delegates representing legislative districts across Washington gathered in Bellevue to talk elections strategy, throw support behind candidates, and finalize the party’s platform. On Sunday, the group debated its official positions on the war in Gaza, legalizing sex work, and nuclear power’s role in a greener energy future.

Party chair Shasti Conrad acknowledged that Democrats are taking a defensive stance this year, as Republicans in the state set their sights on the governor’s office and three initiatives aiming to repeal policies championed by Democrats.

“With the way that Republicans have led, it does sometimes put us on the defense because they are so hellbent on rolling back our progress,” Conrad told reporters Saturday.

Party leaders said that preserving their majorities, protecting abortion and Democracy, and defeating Donald Trump are top of mind heading into the final months of this election season.

Overall, the party says 1,023 delegates participated, with 703 in-person and the rest tuning in remotely.

Here are the main takeaways:

1. Antithesis of the state GOP convention

As loud, flamboyant, and chaotic as the state Republican convention was, the Democratic convention was more akin to a team-building business retreat.

Saturday speeches rallying the group around candidates and core issues like health care access and voting rights were met with cheers, but some attendees at the general meeting Sunday acknowledged it was not exactly thrilling to observe.

Part of that was by design — only people who helped draft resolutions or parts of the party’s platform were allowed to speak during the debate portions of the meeting Sunday. A video shared during the Democrats’ general meeting highlighted the division at the state GOP convention, drawing laughs and cheers from attendees.

But Democrats’ main message over the weekend was that they are focused on keeping — or expanding — their influence in Olympia and D.C., and are united in their pursuits to hold onto their existing power.

2. Resolutions on Gaza and nuclear energy

The weekend did reveal a few strong differences of opinion within the party.

During the general meeting Sunday, the group debated three separate resolutions affirming the party’s position urging for a ceasefire in Gaza, an end to military aid for Israel, and the restoration of some humanitarian funding.

These resolutions aren’t legally binding. But they’re a symbolic show of unity at a time of deep division over the war. A vast majority of the party supported the ceasefire resolution after months of rising deaths among Palestinians.

But some Democrats at the Bellevue convention voiced concerns over the additional two measures that focused on military aid and humanitarian funding, calling them “one-sided” or “divisive” and worrying that approving them could contribute to antisemitism. Still, both of those resolutions were ultimately approved by a majority of the party delegates.

The group also narrowly rejected two resolutions stating that nuclear power is “not the solution to climate change,” and that funding for clean energy should not be used to study or support the expansion of small modular nuclear reactors. Instead, the party voted to take no formal position on nuclear power.

The party also approved a resolution urging lawmakers to legalize sex work.

3. A gubernatorial no-show

Similar to the Republican convention, only one of the party’s two major candidates for governor showed up.

State Sen. Mark Mullet was a no-show. Though invited to attend the convention as a delegate, he was not offered a speaking slot. Mullet instead spent the weekend in Yakima talking to farmers.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Bob Ferguson showed up in Bellevue — and gave a speech. Party officials said that Ferguson, the leading Democrat for governor in polling and fundraising, was invited to speak because of his status as a statewide elected officeholder.

Still, Ferguson focused his short speech on his campaign and pointed out that the race for governor — if history is any indication — could be very, very close. Ferguson faces a tight race against leading Republican Dave Reichert, if both make it through the primary.

4. “Nominations” for candidates

The party as a whole did not vote on partywide “endorsements” because of the number of Democrats competing for the same office, even as smaller groups within the party have offered some candidate endorsements.

Instead, the state Democratic Party nominated a slate of candidates for office. A party spokesperson said these nominations are less an indication of who the party wants to win, and more of a safeguard against an abrupt office vacancy. If a party-nominated candidate wins office but is later unable to remain in that role, the party can fill the position instead of holding a special election. It also guarantees that if a party nominee wins the office, a potential replacement to carry out the remainder of the term will be a Democrat.

Nominations over the weekend included Bob Ferguson for governor, Denny Heck for lieutenant governor, Dave Upthegrove and Patrick DePoe for public lands commissioner, and Manka Dhingra and Nick Brown for attorney general.

This was another departure from the GOP convention, where a raucous endorsement process for the governor’s race became a focal point. The Democrats, by contrast, conducted nominations mostly in silence, with attendees occasionally waving hands in the air to voice approval.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.