Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who mounted a dogged presidential candidacy raising the alarm about climate change, dropped out of the 2020 race Wednesday after struggling to earn a place in the next Democratic primary debate.
Mr. Inslee plans to compete for a different office instead — the one he already holds. He intends to run for a third term as governor in 2020, according to a person with knowledge of his decision, which was first reported by The Associated Press.
While his presidential campaign had “advanced the dialogue” on climate change, Mr. Inslee said, he had concluded that the electoral obstacles before him were insurmountable.
“I’m not going to be the president, so I’m withdrawing tonight from the race,” Mr. Inslee said in an interview Wednesday night on MSNBC, where he first made the announcement.
Mr. Inslee said he had no immediate plans to endorse another Democrat in the primary, but said he hoped to advise the Democratic field on climate policy and help them “remove the climate denier from the White House.”
The announcement came only hours after Mr. Inslee released the sixth and final part of a climate plan that ballooned to about 200 pages.
“I’m going to help all the other candidates raise their level of ambition on this,” Mr. Inslee said on MSNBC, adding, “We need all of them to raise their game.”
Mr. Inslee, 68, entered the race in March with a vow that if he were elected president, he would make climate change the defining concern of his administration. His tailored much of his campaign travel to highlight environmental disasters and climate-driven adversity around the country, visiting flooded towns in Iowa and unveiling a “climate justice” plan outside an oil refinery in Detroit.
He attracted interest with a forceful performance in the July debates in Detroit, challenging former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. for what Mr. Inslee described as inadequate proposals to curb environmental disaster.
“Mr. Vice President, your argument is not with me, it’s with science,” Mr. Inslee said.
Mr. Inslee said he had been encouraged by a groundswell of support for his campaign after that debate, but conceded it “broke a little late” to lift him into contention for the nomination.
In a crowded race full of high-wattage personalities and potentially history-making candidates, Mr. Inslee — an easygoing career politician, and one of more than a dozen white men competing for support in a diverse field — struggled to build support in the polls.
The Democratic National Committee rebuffed his pleas for a debate wholly given over to the issue of climate change, and Mr. Inslee was not on track to qualify for the next round of debates in September.
While Mr. Inslee had accumulated enough donors to meet one of the requirements for the September debates, his failure to earn enough support in the polls was all but certain to keep him off the stage. His polling struggles also kept him from being invited to a coming CNN town hall-style event on climate change, the very idea he had championed.
But unlike other candidates who have left the race, like Representative Eric Swalwell of California and former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Mr. Inslee plainly succeeded in raising his political stature and moving his chosen issue closer to the center of the campaign.
His exit from the race could create an opportunity for other candidates to highlight their own climate agendas. A number of Democrats have outlined plans for curbing climate change, though none has matched the intensity of Mr. Inslee’s focus on the issue.
On Wednesday night, several of the Democrats who spent months competing with Mr. Inslee for the nomination praised him and his efforts to make climate change a central issue of the primary.
“I don’t think we’d be having the kind of climate debate that we’re having if it weren’t for Jay Inslee,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts told reporters after a town hall event in Los Angeles. “I really appreciate what he added to this campaign, and hope that he’s going to stay in the fight for what he believes in.”
“Few leaders have done more to shine a light on the climate crisis than @JayInslee,” Senator Kamala Harris of California wrote on Twitter. “His voice will be missed in this primary but I know he will continue this fight.”
Mr. Inslee said on MSNBC that he would be making another announcement on Thursday about his political future, presumably his bid for a third term. Because he never ruled out leaving the presidential race to seek re-election, Mr. Inslee has faced some impatience from other Democrats in Washington State who are eager to run for the governorship whenever he leaves it.
The League of Conservation Voters, an influential environmental group, seemed to encourage Mr. Inslee to seek a third term for governor on Wednesday night, releasing a glowing statement from its president, Gene Karpinski.
“Should he choose to run for a third term,” Mr. Karpinski said, “we have no doubt that Governor Inslee will continue to earn his title of ‘greenest governor’ as he oversees Washington State as the model for how states can lead the way on just and equitable policies to tackle the climate crisis.”
There has also been speculation that Mr. Inslee could serve in an environmental role in another Democrat’s administration, but in the past he has said he had no interest in serving as a climate envoy.
Concern for environmental policy and global warming has defined much of Mr. Inslee’s career. He served eight terms in the House of Representatives, first representing a rural district and then, after losing re-election in the 1994 midterm elections, relocating to a more liberal seat in the Seattle area. He narrowly won the governorship in 2012 and secured a second term by a comfortable margin.
The main issue driving his defeat in 1994 was gun control: Mr. Inslee supported a law banning assault-style firearms. He pointed to that vote during his presidential campaign as proof of his political backbone, and stressed his credentials as an antagonist of the National Rifle Association in an effort to appeal to liberal voters on issues besides climate change.
As governor, Mr. Inslee has amassed a liberal record that he has heralded in the presidential race, including the lawsuits his state has waged against the Trump administration, starting with its successful challenge to Mr. Trump’s first set of travel restrictions that targeted people from a number of predominantly Muslim countries.
But in an email to supporters on Wednesday night, Mr. Inslee left no doubt about the mark he hoped his campaign would leave.
“We have introduced a detailed and comprehensive policy blueprint for bold climate action and transformation to a clean energy economy,” Mr. Inslee wrote. “We will fight to ensure this gold standard of climate action is adopted and executed by our party and our next president.”
Jennifer Medina contributed reporting from Los Angeles.