Former Washington state Sen. Dino Rossi, twice a candidate for governor, is running for the U.S. Senate.
Republicans in Washington state
are in dire shape, and it's not just because of President W. The state party has become borderline irrelevant, ignored by prominent officeholders who have their own private armies. Democratic state House Speaker Frank Chopp, a formidable political boss, has taken the battle to the Republican strongholds in the suburbs, where he is stomping opponents. Republican legislators are inexperienced, badly outnumbered and outgunned, and out of touch with the party's corporate elite. Not edifying.
All these factors led to the wipeout in the 2006 election. Yet just two years before, former state Sen. Dino Rossi
of Issaquah, a commercial real-estate salesman, finished in a virtual tie with the well-known state Attorney General Christine Gregoire in the governor's race. Secretary of State Sam Reed, Attorney General Rob McKenna, and Land Commissioner Doug Sutherland all won statewide office, and the trio, along with Rossi, won every single Puget Sound suburban legislative district, according to former GOP party chair Chris Vance. Can they bounce back again?
There are two contending strategies for revival – Dino-ize or modernize.
The irrepressible Vance, who dreamed of running for U.S. Senate in 2006 when Mike McGavick was trounced by Maria Cantwell, is a leading advocate for the Dino strategy. Vance argues that Rossi can win in a rematch against Gregoire in 2008, and that the only way to transform a party in such poor health is not step by step upward through the Legislature but from the top, by putting a Republican in the governor's mansion. "Dino unites the party," says Vance. "He's got name ID, money, a statewide organization, and the sympathy factor since a majority of voters still think he won the last race." Another plus factor (there aren't many) is new party chair Luke Esser, far more congenial for Rossi than the previous chair, Diane Tebelius.
One big problem is that Rossi says he won't decide whether to run until the end of 2007. If he declines (most think he will run), the Republicans would have to scramble to find a serious candidate and make up for lost time. McKenna apparently looked at the race and was discouraged by the power brokers, who felt he was too young to take on an effective incumbent governor and didn't want to lose Republican control of the attorney general's office. John Stanton
, native Seattleite, moderate, and CEO of Western Wireless and one of the founders of the local wireless business, has told some supporters that he would not be interested before 2012. Meanwhile, Dino's Hamlet-act has kept him from behaving like a party spokesman during the last session of the Legislature, and prevented others from getting into the race. "If Dino wants to run, there will be no serious primary opponent," declares Vance.
In a conversation with Rossi
this week, I asked him if, considering the party's plight, he wouldn't accelerate his decision. Nope, he said. "Like fishing, you have to be patient, and I can afford to wait till then." He hasn't been buffing his image or public standing, and his recent purchase of an interest in the minor-league Everett Aquasox – put together over burgers at the Issaquah Red Robin with friend and former Mariners star Jay Buhner, he says delightedly – didn't exactly enhance the Rossi gravitas.
And what would he run on this time? "The Democrats in the past budget have just created the biggest deficit the state's ever seen," he predicted, noting that he had gone through a similar drill of dieting in 2003, working with a Democratic governor. Any other big personal crusades he's developed since the last issues-light race? Not ready to say. I also asked Rossi for his views about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, including John McKay of Seattle, a Republican. He tiptoed through the minefield. "Never met the man," he said of McKay, though he knows his brother, Mike. (Everyone in Republican politics knows the McKays.) Rossi insisted he had applied no pressure when McKay was considering voter-fraud issues in the recount drama after the 2004 gubernatorial election. (McKay said he found no grounds for legal action.) Any comment on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's handling of the firings – a huge issue for the country, for the independence of the justice branch, and for the Republican Party? Rossi defaulted to his trademark avoidance of commenting on federal issues.
That's Rossi the unifier, to be sure, since McKay has polarized the party by his principled stand (compelling to moderates and independents, traitorous to party loyalists). Indeed, some Republicans, such as former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, had started boosting the suddenly famous McKay for higher office, but that's probably a fantasy given the anger of the conservative base. Grant one to Rossi for political shrewdness. But his casual vagueness on many important issues, including Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, and his above-politics stance ("I don't need a political career, and if I had wanted that I would have run for the Senate in 2006," he told me), make many wonder if he has enough depth and belly-fire to topple an admired incumbent governor.
He may. He's a better campaigner than Gregoire, being personable, funny, and approachable. He'd run against 24 years of Democratic governors and a general unhappiness with Olympia (spending too much, botching big issues like education and transportation). He'd sing from the suburban hymnbook: Skip the ideology, don't raise my taxes, make progress on schools and congestion, and say nice things about the environment. Much depends, of course, on who the Republicans nominate for president and if that candidate can motivate the dispirited party voters. As to the kind of governor Rossi would be, you wouldn't be able to tell much from his genial campaign, but he would probably be quite pragmatic, given the strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, though he's not cut from the Bold Breakthrough patterns of a Mitt Romney in Massachusetts or Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, both more liberal states than Washington.
The other strategy
, a rather long shot, is to modernize, not Dino-ize, the party. You more or less concede that Gregoire can't be beat, given the roaring economy, the Bush factors, and all the goodies she and her Democratic majority have spread across the landscape. So you behave like a classic party in minority phase and become a Party of Ideas, using the 2008 race to put them forth and rally supporters. You tackle the problems that Democrats, constrained by the interest groups they have to reward, can't really deal with, and you try to deploy market incentives to make big changes. An example would be getting private companies to foot much of the bill for highways and transit, as Europe and many socialist countries are doing. That's an idea that would give Frank Chopp fits (not a bad foil to play off) but might promise voters significant relief from congestion and lower costs in construction. (That's an example, folks, not my recommendation!)
The modernization strategy would have to peel off a lot of soft Democrats and independents, since the local Republicans would revolt. It would take a forceful leader, probably one who is self-financed as billionaire Stanton could be. It would probably take two elections to really get traction. It would take the Dan Evans wing of the party to stop dreaming about an Evans restoration and actually do grunt work again. (Some call these disillusioned moderates the Pickleball Crowd, since they seem to like to go off to Whidbey Island and play a good game of Pickleball, invented by former U.S. Rep. Joel Pritchard, rather than work for a party that has been taken over by social inferiors.)
So a reinvention of the state Republican Party is unlikely to happen. But then, consider how the state is changing and the nature of the politics for the new economy. This new politics is not San Francisco liberalism. It's not rent control and agonizing about white privilege and coming up with millions of reasons why the government just can't do something. It's much more Silicon Valley – disruptive, experimental, individualistic, capitalistic, free-trading, globalized and so perfectly comfortable with multicultural workforces, ambitious, and impatient. Much more brash like Rudy Guiliani than old-line John Kerry.
The result is a paradox that will have to be resolved sometime soon. The state is tipping into a kind of populist, big-government majority at the same time that the economy is pulling our politics in the opposite direction. Eventually, a party might emerge to match the drift of the economy and the demographics. Judging by the present state of the GOP, that won't be soon.