By Sharon Bernstein and Ginger Gibson
SEATTLE/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington state Governor Jay Inslee said on Friday he will seek the Democratic Party's nomination for president in 2020, joining the crowded field as a relative unknown who hopes to catch fire by making climate change a central issue of his campaign.
Inslee, 68, is the first governor in the group vying for the chance to challenge President Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee, in next year's general election.
"I’m running for president because I am the only candidate who will make defeating climate change our nation’s number one priority," Inslee said in a video released Friday morning.
In Seattle, family and supporters crowded into a chilly garage at a solar energy company Friday morning for Inslee's formal campaign kickoff.
His entrance into the race provoked a sharp response from Republicans. Michael Ahrens, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said in an email to Reuters that Inslee had "zero" chance of winning the presidency.
"His campaign will only force Democrats into embracing more extreme policies, like a carbon tax, which would kill jobs, raise energy prices and disproportionately hurt working-class Americans,” Ahrens said.
Before announcing his presidential bid, however, Inslee began positioning himself as a candidate who could go toe-to-toe with Trump, whose temperament and climate policy he has criticized.
Inslee spent 15 years in Congress before being elected governor in 2012. He won re-election to a second four-year term in 2016.
Although less known than rivals including U.S. senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris, Inslee has a strong following among environmentalists and will have financial support from a newly formed environmental political action committee.
Climate change did not register as a top issue for the general electorate in the 2018 congressional elections, but Democratic voters tend to cite it more often as being important to them.
Inslee has made tackling global warming and protecting the environment a key fixture of his administration, signing legislation to reduce his state's carbon emissions.
He also cites other progressive bonafides, including a 2014 move to put a moratorium on capital punishment and full implementation of the Affordable Care Act and accompanying expansion of Medicaid health coverage for the poor.
He most recently served as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, a role that helped expand donors' awareness of him as he campaigned around the country on behalf of other candidates.
Inslee has a long congressional voting history, a record he hopes will bolster his candidacy but which could also provide fuel for his opponents.
His term in the U.S. House of Representatives was interrupted when he was defeated in 1994 after two years in office, a loss he attributed to his support of the assault weapons ban that Republicans used in their campaign to oust Democrats from power that year.
He was elected again in 1999 and used his time in the House to position himself as a moderate and member of the pro-business New Democrat Coalition.
He was considered an ally of companies from his state, including Boeing Co, Microsoft Corp and Amazon.com Inc, and cast votes viewed as pro-business.
He voted against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2008 Wall Street bailout known as TARP. In 2010, he voted in favor of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
(Reporting by Ginger Gibson in Washington and Sharon Bernstein in Seattle; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Lisa Shumaker and Tom Brown)