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.
In 2004, according to CNN's polling, Americans who attended church at least once a week voted overwhelmingly for President Bush; those who attended rarely, or never, voted in equally overwhelming numbers for John Kerry. It is not a coincidence that the South, where church attendance is highest, has become the most-Republican region in the country.
Washington Republicans, therefore, are at a structural disadvantage, for, as everyone knows, Washington is one of the most "unchurched" states in the nation. According to a 2006 Gallup survey, statewide only 32 percent of us attended church weekly, the seventh-lowest total in America. I would wager that the number is even lower in the Puget Sound area. It's simple math: the Republican base is comprised largely of cultural conservatives, and that base is smaller in the Puget Sound area – where the battles are being fought and lost – than in almost any other state. Add to that the collapse of support for the war in Iraq and the president, and the debacle of 2006 seems in hindsight to have been inevitable. The Republican base in the suburban battleground is simply not big enough to allow GOP candidates to survive when national trends are driving independent voters away.
It took a while, but most Republicans in a leadership position here understand this. The GOP understands that messages that work in Mississippi and Oklahoma don't sell in Redmond and Federal Way. Name for me a Republican since Ellen Craswell in 1996 who has based their campaign on an aggressive, culturally conservative message.
Washington Republicans get it now, but in 2006 it didn't matter. McGavick didn't run a perfect campaign, but he was an impressive candidate, and in most years he would have done better than 40 percent of the vote. Republican legislators like Dave Schmidt, Toby Nixon, Luke Esser, Bev Woods, and Jan Shabro, all of whom had won multiple elections in the suburbs previously, were tossed out in 2006. In Washington, at least, the anti-Bush, anti-Iraq tide swept away all in its path.
At the same time, there is a troubling pattern emerging for the GOP at specifically the legislative level. In 2004, Sutherland, Reed, McKenna, and, most significantly, Rossi won in every Puget Sound suburban legislative district. Dave Reichert won the open 8th congressional district. In 2006, Reichert survived the Democratic tidal wave. Yet in 2004 and 2006, Republicans lost a net of 13 suburban legislative seats. There have been scattered losses elsewhere too, but it has been the collapse in the suburbs that has taken the Rs from being competitive to being marginalized in Olympia.
Why do candidates like Rossi and Reichert survive in the suburbs, despite the national trends, while GOP legislative candidates fail? Two things: money and resume.
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