How The Once-Powerful State GOP Blew Its Chance To Elect a Governor

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For any state party, the governorship is the ultimate prize. More resources and attention go into winning that race than any other. This year, Republican leaders will claim that they have a chance to defeat Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, but even they know the truth. This year, for the first time in living memory, there is not a serious effort by Republicans and their allies to win the state’s top job. This, more than anything else, illustrates the GOP’s slide towards irrelevance in Washington state.

In 1984, I graduated from Western Washington University and went to work as the field director on the reelection campaign of Republican U.S. Rep. Rod Chandler in the 8th Congressional District, spanning east King and Pierce counties. I was a small part that year of a big Republican team that included the Reagan reelection campaign, a powerful state party led by Chair Jennifer Dunn, and the reelection campaign of Republican Gov. John Spellman. It was a heady experience for an enthusiastic 22-year-old Republican, because it was quite a team.

Going into 1984, Republicans had won four of the previous five races for governor. A strong, experienced cadre of political professionals led the GOP, veterans of the campaigns of former Gov. Dan Evans (a three-term governor) and U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton (twice elected to the U.S. Senate). Spellman had been elected King County Executive three times and had been the Republican nominee for governor in 1976 before being elected in 1980. He was obviously a well-known, experienced, credible candidate. And Republicans had the united financial support of Washington’s business community. In the end, Spellman lost a close race in 1984 to Democrat Booth Gardner, but Republicans ran a serious, well-funded campaign.

No Republican has won since Spellman, but they have often come close. Attorney General Ken Eikenberry got 48% against U.S. Rep. Mike Lowry in 1992. Former state Sen. Dino Rossi was twice declared the winner in 2004 before losing on the third recount. In his 2008 rematch with Christine Gregoire, he received 47% of the vote. Then-Attorney General Rob McKenna received 48% in a loss to Inslee in 2012. And four years ago, former Port Commissioner Bill Bryant raised $4 million and got over 45% of the vote. Every race for governor since 1984 has included a serious, credible, relatively well-funded Republican who could lay claim to the legacy of Evans, Gorton, and Spellman. Until now. This year Republicans are on track to get crushed in the state’s top race.

Granted, the huge partisan advantage the Democrats enjoy in Washington, combined with Donald Trump’s anemic approval ratings here, create an atmosphere that the strongest Republican candidate could not overcome. But even in other years that looked bad for the GOP, there was always a serious candidate running a serious campaign and helping the down-ballot races. This year, none of the four Republicans running for governor — state Sen. Phil Fortunato from Bonney Lake, Republic Police Chief Loren Culp, former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed, and initiative entrepreneur Tim Eyman — has run major races before, and none is raising the kind of money needed to seriously compete.

At this point four years ago, Bryant had raised $1.5 million and had $600,000 cash on hand, and his fundraising was significantly weaker than what Rossi and McKenna had raised previously. None of this year’s Republicans has raised even a third of Bryant’s numbers.

The Republicans who ran serious gubernatorial races in the past were all moderates from King County who understood that to win in Washington state a Republican needs moderate suburban voters, even if that means separating oneself from the national GOP message. This year, all four Republican candidates are running as Trump-style populists, first using the homelessness crisis in Seattle and, lately, Inslee’s stay-at-home orders, to fire up the Trump base — even as every poll shows Trump losing big here and the overwhelming majority of Washingtonians supporting Inslee’s actions during the pandemic.

Eyman in particular personifies the new Trump GOP. Defiant, anti-establishment, anti-intellectual, flamboyant and controversial. Eyman and “conservatives” like him see the Republican Party as a permanent protest movement, rather than a serious center-right governing party. And for all those reasons, Eyman will probably emerge from the 37 names on ballot as Inslee’s opponent.

So how did it come to this?  How did the party of Evans, Gorton, Dunn, Rossi, and McKenna become the party of Trump and Eyman?  For decades, Republican elites were able to hold off the populists among their base votes and hold on to significant business community funding. But gradually that struggle was lost.

Republican leaders have always understood that to win here, Republicans had to be a little different. Republicans need to deemphasize abortion and other hot-button social issues, while highlighting support for education and environmental protection. Before Trump, all the serious Republican candidates for major office and most state party chairs have tried to create separation from the national GOP message. There were always grassroots activists who wanted the party to move farther to the right, but most of the time the moderate establishment remained the face of the Washington GOP.

During those years, the business community was a reliable and consistent Republican ally. Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, Paccar, Safeco, Pemco and all the major trade associations did not just lean Republican, they were committed to helping elect Republican governors and legislative majorities. The business community poured money into a political action committee, United for Washington, which then poured money into Republican campaigns, and only Republican campaigns.

When I defeated a Democratic incumbent for a state House seat in a suburban King County district in 1990, virtually all my funding came from United for Washington and a handful of other big business sources. When I was state party chairman during the 2002 and 2004 elections, I would routinely meet with business lobbyists and walk away with five figure donations to the state party. And in 2012, with the overwhelming support of the business community, McKenna raised $14 million for his gubernatorial campaign.

Republicans had the message, and the money, to compete in a Democratic-leaning state. But it would not last.

Tensions grew between the GOP and the business community. Business was always leery of the Republican association with social issues, but the big point of contention was over transportation funding. Republican opposition to gas tax increases and support for Eyman’s initiatives cutting transportation funding dampened business support. In addition, a new generation of business leaders who were not reflexively Republican took over. It did not help that a string of losses made Republicans look like a bad investment. Today, Republicans raise their money from small donors and wealthy individuals and receive very little from the business community. As a result, the GOP is routinely massively outspent by Democrats.

Two events accelerated the Republican slide: the defeat of McKenna and the victory of Trump. For months leading up to the 2012 election, McKenna led Inslee in the polls. Moderate, smart, and well-known statewide, surely McKenna was finally the Republican who could break through. His defeat persuaded many business leaders and Republican establishment bigwigs to throw in the towel. If Rob McKenna can’t win, who can?

And then came Trump’s victory and takeover of the party and its message. The base is now firmly populist and aggressively hostile to the moderates who ran the GOP for so long. The revolution is complete.

There are still smart, capable establishment Republicans in Washington, but they realize running for governor is a lost cause. So they have abandoned that field to the populists, which results in weak, poorly funded candidates at the top of the ticket, alienating suburban moderates and perpetuating the slide towards irrelevance. This year, for the first time, Republicans will focus their efforts, and what money they have, on defending the seats they still hold in the Legislature and pretty much concede the race for governor.

Get used to it. This is what one party rule looks like.

This article is published with permission from Crosscut.com, where it first appeared.

15 COMMENTS

  1. I would add two other factors for the decline of the state GOP. One is the failure by Evans and Spellman to groom possible successors. The other is the decision by the Republicans to stop contesting Seattle races, thus depriving the state party of voices for urban policies and the need to protect Seattle legislators by giving them some victories. Seattle used to send Republicans to the Legislature (such as Evans, Gorton, and Joel Pritchard) and there was once even a Seattle 10 group of urban legislators from both parties.

  2. Sorry, but this is revisionist history that misplaces the blame. This: “Every race for governor since 1984 has included a serious, credible, relatively well-funded Republican who could lay claim to the legacy of Evans, Gorton, and Spellman. Until now.”

    Seriously? Ellen Craswell, who in 1996 got 42 percent of the vote? The Ellen Craswell who called gay rights “special rights for sodomites,” who, while she was in the state senate, was called Senator No because she refused to vote for ANY tax. This was a “serious” candidate who Republicans felt was deserving and capable of governing? Someone we should all have taken seriously?

    And how about John Carlson, who in 2000 got less than 40 percent of the vote for Governor. This “serious” candidate, who embraced Tim Eyman and led dubious initiatives of his own.

    Sorry, yes, the national Republican party is corrupt, but Trump is a symptom not the cause. Any party that “seriously” suggested Sarah Palin was fit to be president had already ceased to be serious. And Washington state Republicans have been there right alongside them for a very long time. The Republican party was not “taken over” by the Trumpers — it was their handmaiden. As George Will recently wrote: Republicans need to be stopped.

    • There were good candidates running for Governor in 1996, too many, in fact. Craswell won the blanket primary because the vote was split between too many Rs.

      And Carlson was not a perfect candidate, but was not an extremist. And he had a lot of support.

      • Hmnnn. So there were “good candidates” running in 96 but the wackobird was the preferred choice of Republican voters? That says volumes. And Carlson had lots of support? He didnt get out of the 30s in the general. Doesn’t that tell you something about that considerable support? Whether candidates or issues, the Republicans in this state haven’t been serious for decades. Until you face that and come up with credible, defensible ideas and policies – and disavow the wackos – it will be hard to take Republicans as a serious party. Too bad too. We NEED a vigorous and credible second party that can argue merits rather than blind ideology. The Ds would be much better if they had credible opponents.

  3. Your list of events and candidates has a lot on it about effect but very little about cause. It’s full of weak excuses for the decline and corruption of the Republican party. Too much about fundraising failures and too little about moral failures. The fall of the Republican party did not begin with its blind embrace of Trump and his coterie of creepy schemers and enablers; it began with the party’s blind embrace of Ronald Reagan and his coterie of creepy schemers and enablers. That legacy has been purposeful and enduring, and the party has no one to blame but itself.

    • Ronald Reagan won Washington State in 1980 and 1984. In 1980 we elected a Republican Governor, a Republican Senator, and majorities in the legislature. Clearly not a party in decline.

      • No, but definitely on its way there. A disaster as bad as the one we’re experiencing now doesn’t happen overnight. It takes some neglect, some denial, some intention and some time.

  4. I think there’s a very good chance Rob McKenna would have been elected governor in 2012 if he had come out in favor of gay marriage, which the legislature passed in February 2012. Instead, he opposed it and social conservatives placed a referendum on the November ballot to repeal, which failed decisively as Inslee won a close race.

    Rob McKenna, understanding that abortion had become a litmus test issue for many WA voters (including many suburban, professional women that might otherwise have voted Republican), spent more than a decade carefully laying a foundation for his gubernatorial run by establishing that he was (well, semi, sorta) pro-choice. But the big social issue of that election was marriage equality, not abortion rights, and he put himself on the wrong side of it by coming out against gay marriage. That error (both substantive and political, I would argue) turned McKenna into just another right-wing, socially conservative Republican in the eyes of many voters. It made his purported moderation appear hollow, superficial, and staged.

    Since the cadres of WA State Pat Robertson supporters overran the Republican presidential caucuses in 1988, the social conservatism of the Washington Republican Party has been an albatross around the party’s neck in our increasingly socially liberal state. So as others have pointed out above, Craswell and Carlson and other Republican gubernatorial candidates disqualified themselves with their hard line social positions. Meanwhile, old school Northwest Republicans — socially liberal, fiscally moderate, pro-environment — have demonstrated that it is still possible, if not easy, for that sort of throwback Republican to get elected to statewide offices.

  5. I guess I have to agree that Rob McKenna might have been elected in 2012 if he had come out in favor of gay marriage. In other words, if he’d had the courage and the wit to steal a plank from the Democratic platform and run with it. But he (and his handlers) didn’t. And that left everyone unsure about what his actual position on the issue was. So do I feel sorry for him because he lost he election? Heck no.
    What bothers me about questions of political strategy is that they always turn out to be questions about whether or not a candidate should be honest about his/her beliefs. In other words, if McKenna is a supporter of gay marriage, then did he lie when he ran as someone who opposed it? And if he is opposed to gay marriage, then was he supposed to lie about it if that would have helped him win? Neither of those choices makes him an upstanding moral example for any voter.
    And as for the pro-choice question, being semi, sorta pro-choice is like being semi, sorta pregnant, which is exactly the problem with McKenna’s stance. Women who are concerned about maintaining control over their own bodies are not inspired by candidates of either sex who are cagey about their position on that issue. So if McKenna appeared to be “just another right-wing, socially conservative Republican in the eyes of many voters” perhaps that’s because he is. And if his moderation appeared “hollow, superficial and staged,” that’s undoubtedly because it was.
    My problem is that I can’t figure out whether I am too cynical to take these these discussions about political strategy seriously or not cynical enough.

  6. The other aspect of the McKenna race is that he tried to get to the left of Inslee on education, particularly higher education. This could have overcome his other positions on social conservatism. When Dan Evans was riding high in this state it was because he got to the left of the unimpressive Democratic opponents by courting education, environment, and state employees. McKenna should have developed some signature issues on the environment. As for gay marriage, he got caught by an issue that was shifting fast; after all, even Obama was slow to embrace the idea, waiting to May 2012. Better, in such a situation, to be open to changes and making all-but-marriage more possible.
    The other factor bedeviling statewide Republicans is the Gorton formula, which is to rally the rest of the state by running against Seattle and its rub-it-in liberalism. It doesn’t add up to enough votes, particularly as the Seattle suburbs get more like Seattle in voting and values. It shouldn’t be that hard to come up with some goodies for Seattle voters, such as money for repairing bridges, serious proposals for building affordable housing, and (Evans again) genuine programs to help African Americans.

    • The first two of those require funding. A few Republicans still supported transportation funding in the the early 2000’s, harder to find them in Olympia these days. Once you leave the self-comforting zone of the “Mainstream Republicans” it gets crazy fairly quickly. That’s at least too bad, perhaps tragic…we’ll know in November.

      • McKenna tried to argue for a shift of funding, not new taxes, reducing the growth rate of social-service programs in order to be more generous to education. I agree, still a non-starter when the GOP controlled the Senate.

  7. Rob McKenna lost because he was a Republican. Full stop. Unless the Ds had run a terrible candidate in 2012 there was no way ANY Republican was going to win that race. The partisan gap, then and now, means an R has to win the huge majority of independents, AND a bunch of Ds to prevail. Unless the D candidate is toxic, that aint gonna happen.

    • I’m an independent voter, so as far as I concerned, Rob McKenna didn’t lose because he had an R behind his name. He had a platform that most people in this state couldn’t support. Full stop.
      The argument you’re making is a chicken-and-egg thing. The partisan gap is wide not because voters are wacky and intransigent. It’s wide because the R’s have leaned way too far toward the lunatic end of the spectrum. I don’t think voters in Washington choose candidates simply because of the letter behind their name; that’s a pretty cynical assessment of the electorate here.
      As you well know, Republicans have been elected to statewide office here, and it was because they were moderates, not wacky hardliners. The Democrats who have served as Governor have been moderate in their views and certainly in their governing style. And that’s how they got elected! How hard is that? The R’s should try that approach again instead of continuing to blindly follow their temporarily (I hope) unhinged party off the cliff. In short, they should lead more and pander less. And maybe take up a collection to buy Tim Eyman an office chair and find him a nice desk job where he can do less harm to his poor party.
      BTW, I grew up in the Spokane Valley so trust me when I say that the current and former R’s should find and spend some time and money enthusiastically backing a rational candidate to run against Matt Shea because he has crashed your party and he is trashing your house and he is not your friend.

      • “The partisan gap is wide not because voters are wacky and intransigent. It’s wide because the R’s have leaned way too far toward the lunatic end of the spectrum”

        Agreed!

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