The new chairman of the Washington State Republican Party is a state legislator, culture warrior, and anti-vaxxer who once pinned a Star of David on his shirt in protest of COVID-19 vaccine regulations, likening government’s efforts to protect people from the pandemic with Jews’ identity requirements in the Third Reich.
“It’s an echo from history . . . In the current context, we are all Jews,” State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, wrote on his Facebook page after wearing the Star while speaking to a church group in Lacey.
Faced with a hurricane of bipartisan blowback, from a condemnation by the Anti-Defamation League to an admonition from GOP House leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox, Walsh later apologized. He told right-wing KTTH radio host Jason Rantz: “This gesture went too far. It was inappropriate and offensive. I’m terribly sorry that it happened and that I was part of it.”
He is usually unapologetic. Walsh is a vocal figure on the floor of the Washington state House of Representatives. On the right flank of a 40-seat GOP minority in a 98-member House, he does more bloviating than legislating. In 2021, he was filmed on television being locked out of the John L. O’Brien House Office Building for failing to show he was vaccinated against COVID-19. He was quoted likening the COVID-19 vaccine requirement to Jim Crow segregation in the Old South.
Walsh was the overwhelming victor Saturday as Washington Republicans’ state central committee chose a successor to state chairman Caleb Heimlich, who resigned in June. The committee also endorsed MAGA Republican Joe Kent, who narrowly lost last November to U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp-Perez, D-Wash., and is seeking a rematch.
What has become of our Republican Party? It used to elect statewide officeholders, running on such platforms as Dan Evans’ “A Blueprint for Progress.” It once rebuffed right wing extremism, witness GOP State Rep. Slade Gorton testifying in support of a former Democratic colleague John Goldmark, suing local John Birchers after being red-baited out of the Legislature.
The Republican ticket was our refuge from what Don McGaffin of KING-TV described as “the sleaze wing of the Democratic Party,” officeholders such as State Land Commissioner Bert Cole who left a legacy of crony capitalism and clear cuts. No more. All our statewide electeds are Democrats. Washington hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1980. The GOP’s last Senate victory was Gorton’s reelection in 1994. Eight of our ten U.S. House members are Dems, with the 3rd and 8th Districts having flipped in recent years. Republicans claimed Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was in trouble last year, only to see her win a sixth term in a walk.
While losing elections, the state party has moved relentlessly to the right, even as Democrats have locked in control of the levers of government. Dan Evans and Slade Gorton may have repudiated Donald Trump, but not the Republican Party. Such is the current climate that Mainstream Republicans of Washington, supposed upholders of the old moderate conservative tradition, pronounced itself “delighted” with the selection of Walsh.
“He has the ability and the passion to unite Washington Republicans of all stripes, from the grassroots to the elected level . . . He owes allegiance to no faction, he can speak to all. And he can put our focus on where it belongs, building our party and electing Republicans to office,” Mainstream chair Deanna Martinez said in a statement.
While former Republican strongholds have elected Democratic legislators, from Whatcom County to Whidbey Island to East King County, Walsh represents one place that has swung in the opposite direction. The 19th District, once a labor stronghold in Southwest Washington, had no GOP lawmakers seven years ago. Starting with Walsh’s 500-vote victory in 2016, it now has an all-Republican delegation. The district includes the only two Washington counties, Grays Harbor and Pacific, to vote for George McGovern in 1972. Trump has carried both.
Walsh is an outspoken opponent of gun control. He described this year’s legislation, which included an assault rifle ban, as “a waste of the taxpayers’ time and money,” adding: “These attacks on fundamental rights to self-defense are about more than just guns. They are an attack on all foundational constitutional rights.”
He has also taken up the right’s cause on gender. “Gender transition procedures aren’t safe or appropriate for children,” he has argued, accusing Democrats of wanting to “allow state bureaucrats to hide minor children from custodial parents and legal guardians.”
Walsh was a champion of the congressional candidacy of Joe Kent, who called for Dr. Anthony Fauci, longtime medical adviser to presidents, to be charged with murder. In a debate last fall, Kent accused Fauci of providing resources to “the people who cooked up COVID,” and described COVID vaccines as “an experimental gene therapy.”
For his part, Walsh has described Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandates as “an outrageous misuse of the emergency powers the people of Washington grant their governor,” declaring about requirements for service members: “It’s not the proper role of the federal government to mandate what people put in their bodies.”
The GOP under Walsh faces an immediate challenge in 2024 – breaking a 40-year losing streak. After three terms, Inslee is not seeking reelection. The state has elected five successive Democratic governors, with three D’s seeking to become the sixth Democratic governor. Other statewide posts on the ballot – attorney general, state treasurer, and secretary of state – have flipped to the Democrats in recent years.
Walsh has persevered through personal loss. Last October, he wife Jamie died in a head-on crash with a logging truck on U.S. 101 south of Cosmopolis. Her husband was elected to his fourth term less than a month later.