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Is Washington too blue to elect a Republican governor?

Seattle's Morning News host Tom Tangney says he thought if any Republican could win governor in Washington it would be Rob McKenna, but Inslee leads in early returns. (Image courtesy Rob McKenna)

Washington state’s race for governor hung on late ballots Wednesday, with election officials estimating hundreds of thousands of votes were left to count.

Democrat Jay Inslee holds a promising lead after nearly 2 million votes were counted Tuesday. Republican Rob McKenna was struggling in King County, which also held many of the votes still left to count.

Still, McKenna remains optimistic he could become the first GOP governor in about three decades, telling supporters Tuesday they would have to wait a few more days as mail ballots continued to arrive at county offices.

“This year, it will be worth the wait,” McKenna said Tuesday night.

McKenna was meant to be a Republican triumph, as he had been steadily building his political reputation for years and developing a deep grasp of the issues facing state government.

“McKenna seemed like the ideal breakthrough candidate for the Republican Party because he wasn’t an extreme social conservative,” says KIRO Radio Seattle’s Morning News host Tom Tangney.

Republicans last won a governor’s race in the state in 1980, when John Spellman was elected. Voters ousted Spellman at the end of his first term, around the time McKenna was student body president at the University of Washington.

“In this state we have the longest string of Democratic governors in the country,” says Tangney. “For 30 years now. I know we’re a blue state of late, but we’re not the bluest of blue states. I find that remarkable.”

Seattle’s Morning News co-host John Curley says as soon as Washington residents see an “R” by someone’s name they just vote the other way.

The GOP has come close in some elections, most notably the 2004 race in which Dino Rossi lost to current Gov. Christine Gregoire by 133 votes.

Republicans had been cultivating McKenna as a potential gubernatorial candidate as he worked his way from the King County Council to attorney general. In that seat, he won 59 percent of the vote in 2008.

There are still many ballots to count, but right now, Democrat Jay Inslee is leading slightly with 51.3 percent of the vote over Republican Rob McKenna’s 48.7 percent.

“I thought if any Republican was going to win the governorship, it would be Rob McKenna,” says Tangney. “He still might, but that’s really stunning if even a guy like Rob McKenna can’t get elected in this state.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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