Speaker Johnson and the Evolution of State GOP Politicians


When the Boeing Co. honored lawmakers in 2015 after Congress voted to reauthorize the U.S. Export-Import Bank, its loans vital to jet sales overseas, a businessman from Yakima took the microphone to praise the leadership role played by Rep. Dave Reichert, saying the Republican congressman had “balls.”

The old sheriff beamed at the praise of his equipment, but he earned the commendation. The Ex-Im legislation had been stalled and blocked by an ultraconservative Texas congressman chairing the House Financial Services Committee. Reichert went around Republican rulers of the House of Representatives to mount a discharge petition.

By securing signatures from more than half the 435 members, Reichert and then-Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., forced this legislation to the House floor, where the reauthorization measure passed easily on a bipartisan vote. The discharge petition was signed by nine of ten of Washington’s House members, and only the signature of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., was absent.

True to form, last week in the House Republican Caucus, McMorris Rodgers nominated ultraconservative Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson to become the next House Speaker. The news was later announced with CMR standing beside the nominee. Fellow members shouted down a reporter’s question about Johnson’s role as architect of the Trump strategy to overturn 2020 election results. “Shut up! Shut up!” shouted North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx.

A unanimous GOP vote put Johnson in the Speaker’s chair. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., one of ten Republican House members voting to impeach President Trump after the January 6 insurrection, voted for Johnson, whom he praised as a “committed, common sense conservative.” Newhouse added: “I look forward to working with Speaker Johnson to ensure the voice of rural America remains strong in the halls of Congress.”

In politics, where you stand often depends on where you sit.  Newhouse sits uneasily as Central Washington’s man in D.C. A trio of MAGA Republicans came after him in 2022, splitting the vote and allowing Newhouse to survive the primary with 25.49 percent. He won in November but one of his MAGA opponents is already running again. Newhouse opposes restoring grizzly bears to Washington’s Cascades, but he’s become a pander bear in Washington, D.C.

McMorris Rodgers was a member of the Republican leadership when Export-Import Bank legislation was on the line. She chaired the House Republican Conference, making CMR the one woman invited to stand beside the multiple male suits at GOP press conferences. Boeing employs thousands of people back home in this Washington (and has a presence in Spokane), but GOP House members vote to fill leadership positions.

McMorris Rodgers has prospered under restored Republican House rule. She chairs the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, which produced the Republicans’ first piece of legislation in this Congress. It’s an energy bill that provides for renewed coal leases on public lands, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, expedited siting of new power plants, and multibillion dollar subsidies to the oil and gas industries.

Our state used to have a useful two-party tradition. Reformist, Dan Evans-style Republicans provided a welcome ballot alternative to what KING-TV pundit Don McGaffin labeled “the sleaze wing of the Democratic Party.” In turn, most Eastern Washington counties had at least one Democratic officeholder, picked over a Republican from the extreme right. An attractive example was an engaging, slightly goofy young Selah, Wash., lawyer named Jay Inslee, who won two terms in the Legislature and even got himself elected to Congress. (Inslee lost his House seat in 1994, moved to Western Washington and moved up to three terms as Governor.)

Still, Gov. Inslee was swamped in the Central Washington district that once sent him to Congress. He won in 2022 statewide by a 600,000-vote margin (56.56%) but could manage only 43 percent in his old home base of Yakima County.

One long-surviving Democrat was Benton County Prosecutor Andrew Miller. I sat down for lunch with the just-retired Miller last week in Seattle. He talked about years of support from main-street Republicans and law enforcement folk. Alas, he added, Trumpism and the MAGA movement have brought us-against-them politics down to the local level. You just can’t get through to some people anymore, he complained.

Popular Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, barely survived an attempted purge by Trump. Not so lucky was six-term Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who had been reelected with 56 percent of the vote in 2020. She took just 22.28 percent in last year’s primary, ousted by election denier Joe Kent. Kent then lost to Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp-Perez.

House Speaker Johnson may reflect views of rural Louisiana, but not those of this state. He once warned that same-sex marriage would “place our entire democratic system in jeopardy.”  He has described abortion as “a holocaust” and advocated a nationwide abortion ban. He defended laws making gay sex a felony crime.

“The sprawling alliance of anti-God enthusiasts has proven frighteningly efficient at remaking America in their own brutal, dehumanizing image,” Johnson wrote in a 2006 column on the Townhall website. “In the space of a few decades, they have managed to entrench abortion and homosexual behavior, objectify children into sexual objects, criminalize Christianity in the popular culture, and promote guilt and self-doubt as the foremost qualities of our national character.”

Yet, a half-century ago, our state’s AG Slade Gorton was among the first Republicans to call for Richard Nixon’s resignation. Moderates in the party were still a force, and four of them on the House Judiciary Committee voted for Nixon’s impeachment. Moderate Sen. Hugh Scott and conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater led a delegation to the White House telling Nixon it was time to go.

Nowadays, McMorris Rodgers, Newhouse and their fellow House Republicans have put in charge of budget negotiating a congressman and Speaker who has backed big cutbacks to Medicaid and food stamps, as well as opposing U.S. aid to Ukraine.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. When I started in politics, when we drove east from Snoqualmie pass, every single legislative district on I 90 and on I 82, had RepublicaN and Democratic representation. The only exception- the 8th LD in Tri Cities with three Dems, in a district that voted 65% plus GOP at top of ticket. Of course we also had many GOP reps in King County and Puget Sound area. The reign of Speaker Johnson is already starting with a standoff over their inadequate and idiotic demands on funding for Israel. Here we go into the abyss.

    • Nope.

      “That government is best which governs least” is a motto with which Henry David Thoreau opens his pamphlet, Civil Disobedience.

      It’s also a far deeper concept than the ol’ single bumper sticker word limit.

  2. A powerful article in need of writing, Joel, is what the State Democratic Party has had to do with the decline of Democrats in “the rest of the state”, since it isn’t just Central and Eastern Washington that has turned deep red. Since Karen Marchioro retired in January 1993, Democratic Party Chairs have abandoned all hope of those who enter there.”

    I’m also insanely curious to read a piece about “the sleaze wing of the Democratic Party.” I am too young (and don’t get to type that very often) to have watched Don McGaffin on KING.

    • I suppose that’s about Governor Albert Rosellini, who in reality was a remarkable senator and governor. But in Washington state it’s easy to slag an Italian, and Evans wasn’t above it.

  3. The state Republicans, under Dan Evans, threw in with the Rockefeller Wing of the GOP. That was appealing at the time, but I wonder if it was a mis-judgement. Rocky was a strange, flawed leader, and the Rockefeller Party must have seemed an East Coast import. Better to have built a party around Western environment and education, which Evans also tried to do. In retrospect, the Evans alliance looks a little quixotic, backing the wrong horse, marginalizing the Evergreen State.

  4. No, Donn, reference to “Sleaze Wing,” not a hit on Rossellini. I was referring to likes of Land Commissioner Bert Cole, Insurance Commissioner Karl Herman, Sen. Angie Mardesich and others.
    Of course, too , there was guy who ran against Slade for AG in 1968. Later, as courthouse lawyer, he faced a criminal charge: The allegation, he had offered his professional services to sex workers in exchange for theirs.

  5. While deeply opposed to death penalty, exception should be made to inventor of Spellcheck. It has misspelled three names in correcting my comments. Put another “s” in Al Rossellini’s name, took away an “n” from Karl Hermann, and turned Augie Mardesich into “Angie.”


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