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Why Washington Republicans got creamed in 2006 and what they can do about it

A former chair of the state GOP looks at the plight of the party from the perspective of life in the slow lane. First of two parts.
Political consultant Chris Vance, former chair of the Washington state Republican Party.

Political consultant Chris Vance, former chair of the Washington state Republican Party. None

Editor's note: The author was chair of the Washington state Republican Party from 2001-06. This is the first of two parts. The second part was posted on Thursday, July 26.


I still feel guilty being at home in the middle of the day. After 22 years of working in the intensity of politics and government - staff person, candidate, state legislator, King County Council member, state party chairman - 17 months ago I became a public affairs consultant, first with a big firm, and now on my own. Twenty-two years commuting to an office; now, after breakfast I commute upstairs to my computer and cell phone. My life used to be scheduled in 15-minute increments; now I find myself alone with my wife in our quiet house in the middle of the day. I wonder if this will always feel strange.

Not that I'm complaining. The work is interesting, and so far it has been profitable. Most importantly I no longer feel like I am missing out on the best years of our family's life. Being available to drive your son to high school every morning and coach your daughter's soccer team is not a bad lifestyle. I don't know if I will do this forever, but for now I am getting used to life on the sidelines.

Well, not really the sidelines. Reporters still call, and my clients, of course, all have political issues. I'm not working on a campaign, but I still seem to spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about Washington state politics, and one reality constantly looms: the Republican collapse of 2006.

What happened? What does it mean? Can Republicans recover, and if so, how long will it take? This is obviously a subject of some personal interest to me but should also concern anyone who values a competitive two-party system. What follows, then, are thoughts on how Washington suddenly became a one-party state and how the Republicans can come back.

First, some history and context. Washington was an overwhelmingly Republican state before the Depression and FDR realigned American politics. Since then, Democrats have won more often than not, but Republicans have rarely been completely shut out of power. Republicans won six of nine gubernatorial elections between 1940 and 1976, sent Dan Evans and Slade Gorton to the U.S. Senate, and have often controlled one or both houses of the Legislature. Only during the Gov. Al Rosellini years (1957-65) and the first two years of the Carter administration has the GOP found itself where it is today: without a governor or U.S. senator, and facing huge Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

Republicans had seen a steady erosion of power since their dominant 1994 victory, but that seemed like a regression to the mean – Washington returning to normal competitive balance. In 2002, Republicans won a one-seat majority in the state Senate. In 2004 they won two open congressional seats, elected Rob McKenna attorney general, re-elected Sam Reed as secretary of state and Doug Sutherland as commissioner of public lands, and gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi – well, let's just not go there.

The point is, Republicans had been competitive in recent years. But Mike McGavick's overwhelming 2006 defeat by incumbent Sen. Maria Cantwell and a plummet to 36 GOP seats in the House and 17 (!) seats in the Senate - the lowest total since 1965 - was a shock to the system. What happened? One factor, national megatrends, is obvious. The other, superior Democratic political skill at the state legislative level, requires more attention.

Republicans in Washington are on the wrong side of the major long-term megatrend affecting American politics. At some point in the 1970s, politics became less about economics and more about values. Church attendance, not income, has become the primary driver of party allegiance and voting behavior, and that trend has accelerated since the election of George W. Bush in 2000. The president's evangelical faith has been front and center, and the religious overtones of the increasingly unpopular war we find ourselves in cannot be avoided. Atheists like Christopher Hitchens have re-opened the old line of attack on religion as a destructive force in human history, seeming to blame religion for motivating both sides of the war on terror. The faithful fire back, and the divide intensifies.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 11:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Lost in Seattle: Chris Vance makes some good points. However, unaccomplished dem novices such as Darcy Burner can get money and attention, and a Republican named Jim Nobles (elected to the Seattle Monorail Board) gets trashed by the Seattle Times editors when he dares run for King County Assessor. The local main stream media protects numerous dems from scrutiny as to 'personal problem' issues. They rallied around Bobbe Bridge, Mike Lowry, and Brock Adams almost as apologists and enablers; yet gleefully try to tear down Tim Eyman, Pam Roach, Mike McGavick, and Dino Rossi. I will wait for Part 2 of the Vance Tales; however I blame an extermely hostile and biased media for some of the R's woes.

animalal

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 12:37 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Lost in Seattle: Here's at least one thing wrong with your theory: The Seattle Times brought down Brock Adams.

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 1:12 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Lost in Seattle: The mainstream media does have a liberal bias - but that has always been the case. That fact doesn't account for what has happened in recent elections.

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 3:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Lost in Seattle: If the Seattle Times 'brought down' Brock Adams, maybe they ought to investigate some more high profile elected officials and see if there is an ongoing 'alcohol/prescription drug' problem with some of our entrenched incumbents. Let's also ask the question, "Who is too old to continue in office?" That ageism dig was thrown at Jack Metcalf, Ellen Craswell, and Charlie Chong primarily by the media and establishment elites. It is time for gloves to come off and stories such as the Port of Seattle's Dinsmore/Davis fiasco are an excellent starting point. It is difficult for new young challengers when overstaying incumbents are the beneficiaries of a media and establishment protection racket.

animalal

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 4:24 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Lost in Seattle: Chris-

You say that likes it's true!

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 5:16 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Lost in Seattle: Will,

I think there have been enough studies and surveys done on the voting behavior of journalists to conclude that it IS true!

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 6:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Does it matter?: This article presumes that a Republican comeback is an interesting and desirable thing in and of itself. Maybe it is if you are a career Republican, but why should anyone else care? The author simply repeats one of the biggest blunders the current administration has made - placing the interests of the party over those of the country. You'd do better to start with the premise that parties exist only to serve the nation's interests.

Personally, I'm waiting for the Crosscut article entitled "Why Washington Republicans got creamed in 2006, and how can we make sure they never have a chance to screw up the country again."
Sean

Posted Tue, Jul 24, 11:14 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Lost in Seattle: Journalists have educations. They're generally in the top 2/3 of the IQ range. And many come from a community oriented mindset rather than a "get mine" mindset. So of course they trend liberal.

mhays

Posted Mon, Jul 30, 11:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Pam Roach Tears Herself Down: No one on the left has to tear Pam Roach down. She does it all by herself. What else can we say about the notorious Senator from the 31st? She is the laughingstock of Olymlpia. She makes the highlights reel of TVW year after year. Remember 2001"s "Where are my flowers??" She's rude to grassroots advocates. She habitually walks out of hearings, rather than hear testimony she disagrees with. This year in the midst of the 2 1/2-hour debate about medically accurate sex education, Pam Roach claimed to have gone public for the AIDS crisis in 1978--years before AIDS was identified. A former nurse rose to set her straight.

She doesn't represent the more mainstream social values of Auburn and Federal Way, and her former opponent Karen Willard does. How can we explain this, except the power of incumbency?

Posted Mon, Jul 30, 12:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Message to Republican Strategists: Clean Elections: If I were a Republican strategist advising mainstream Rs on how to build back their bench, I would advise the Republic Caucus to wholeheartedly embrace public campaign financing at the municipal, county and state levels. Polls show the public is ready for this.

Chris, you decry the funding advantage of the Dems, yet all but one R in the Leg opposed public campaign financing, while most of the Ds supported it. (For a legislator to say, "I don't want my taxes going toward something or someone I don't believe in" is lame. We all get to pay for stuff that's not on our personal shopping list.) If you sincerely want to take special interest funding out of the equation, this is a proven method.

In Maine, it's a completely bipartisan issue--83% of the state legislature is elected using taxpayer funding, And Rs endorse it. Once out-of session legislators stop having to set aside large chunks of every week for "call time," and can use the time to communicate with voters instead, they love it.

Chris, what if you could have coffee with a promising activist or councilmember, ask them to consider running for office, and not have the discouraging cost of running for that office be the first and biggest hurdle? If I were the Republican strategist, I would advise the R caucus that public campaign financing is the fastest way to strengthen their bench. Candidates would still have to collect dozens or hundreds of small (e.g., $5) contributions to qualify, an amount set to discourage those who just want their name on the ballot. Anyone with Mike McGavick's money or wealthy friends can still choose to self-fund, protecting their First Amendment rights to "free speech." For everyone else, taxpayer-funded elections will level the playing field and restore the public's faith in their elected officials. For details, read how public campaign financing works.

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