Updated Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 01:08 PM
Democrat Jay Inslee sealed his victory in Washington's hard-fought gubernatorial race Friday, as Republican Rob McKenna conceded in an evening phone call.
Inslee, 61, the former eight-term congressman from Bainbridge Island, will become the 23rd governor of Washington state — the eighth gubernatorial win in a row for Democrats.
McKenna, the two-term attorney general, had trailed since Election Day, but had insisted all week he'd come back and win as late votes were counted.
After more batches of ballots were tallied Friday, McKenna acknowledged he could not overcome Inslee's lead, which was fortified by a big margin in the Democratic stronghold of King County.
In a news conference shortly before 7 p.m. at his campaign headquarters, a smiling Inslee said McKenna had called him about an hour earlier and "very graciously" conceded, offering to help with Inslee's transition.
Inslee praised McKenna for fielding "a very vigorous campaign."
"I know he and his supporters worked extremely hard. We had a good discussion about the issues, and now it's time for all of us to unite across the state of Washington to build a working Washington," Inslee said.
The Inslee victory looked probable on Election Night and grew more certain as McKenna continued to trail by about 50,000 votes in subsequent days.
Although McKenna saw his totals improve in some parts of the state, his chances were dashed by the strong Democratic support for Inslee in King County. As of Friday night, Inslee led 51 to 49 percent statewide.
In King County, Inslee led 62 to 38 percent, a gap of nearly 190,000 votes.
McKenna did not hold a news conference or make himself available for interviews Friday. In a video posted on YouTube, he told supporters the campaign had "come to the end of a long journey."
Despite the hard work of the campaign's staff, donors and volunteers, McKenna said "it appears we will fall short of victory when the last ballots are counted. After 17 months of hard work, that is a very disappointing result."
McKenna offered no clue as to his political future, but said he'd stay involved in the community by working on priorities such as the Boy Scouts, Rotary Club and education reform.
GOP suffered losses
The loss by McKenna keeps alive the Republican Party's three-decade-long losing streak in gubernatorial races — the longest in the nation for the GOP.
The loss also capped a string of other defeats for the Republicans in the state. Their candidates were losing every statewide race except for the too-close-to-call contest for secretary of state, where Republican Kim Wyman maintained a lead over Democrat Kathleen Drew. The GOP also lost all three contests for open congressional seats.
In a conference call with reporters, McKenna's campaign manager, Randy Pepple, said Republicans in Washington struggled to overcome antipathy for the national GOP, including the presidential ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.
"In a year like this we were trying to swim up against a 12-and-a-half or 13-point tide at the top of the ticket, and that's problematic," he said.
Pepple downplayed the impact of McKenna's decision to join the multistate lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, saying the law remained unpopular and that McKenna had pursued the case for legal reasons, not political ones.
Pepple said he was "pretty content" about the campaign he ran. "I'm pleased with everything but the outcome."
Inslee had started putting together a transition team for his administration, and Friday's concession means he can push ahead faster with that process. The Democrat vowed to make job creation the No. 1 priority for state government, touting the state's passion for innovation as the "secret sauce" that would lead to growth of industries like clean energy and biotech.
Inslee will face a multibillion dollar fiscal mess when he is sworn in as governor in January, with no obvious ways to fix the problem.
There's a roughly $1 billion hole in the state budget that has to be filled, and at least another $1 billion needed to comply with a state Supreme Court ruling requiring increased education funding. The state also needs to find millions more to help maintain the state's highways and ferry system.
Yet, while the pressure builds to find more money, Inslee and the Legislature will have to grapple with Tim Eyman's Initiative 1185, which requires a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to increase taxes. That's proven to be a near impossibility politically.
I-1185, which reimposes an existing law, was overwhelming approved by voters Tuesday. Democrats and education advocates have challenged the two-thirds requirement's constitutionality in a case that has gone to the state Supreme Court.
During the campaign, Inslee promised he would not seek tax increases — even saying he'd veto them.
He argued the state can find new revenue through economic growth, reducing health care costs and by importing "lean-management" practices from the private sector.
But Gov. Chris Gregoire has said there's no way to raise enough money for schools without increasing taxes, and through budget cuts or government efficiencies to deal with the Supreme Court decision. She's expected to propose them in her final state-budget plan next month.
Seattle Times staff reporters Andrew Garber
and Brian M. Rosenthal contributed to this report.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com.
ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Governor-elect Jay Inslee puts his arm around Unjin Lee, outreach director for his campaign, who is overcome with emotion that the race is finally resolved. Inslee met with his staffers at his headquarters on Rainier Avenue in Seattle.
GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Rob McKenna conceded Friday night.