The Washington GOP: RIP?

Dino Rossi's parade.

Dino Rossi. (Crosscut Flickr pool contributor J.C. Westerbrook).

Is the Republican Party withering away in Washington? Is it hovering near death, perhaps weighing the options now available after the passage of Initiative 1000?

As Ronald Reagan famously said, “facts are stubborn things.” Here are some stubborn facts Republicans must face in 2008. Starting in 1996, the Evergreen State began trending blue, and hasn’t stopped for seven consecutive election cycles. Washington hasn’t been this Democratic since the blowout year of 1992 that sent Bill Clinton to the White House, Patty Murray to the US Senate, and Mike Lowry to the Governor’s Mansion, along with a huge Democratic majority in the Legislature.

The state is not only more Democratic; it is also more liberal. Take Initiative 1000, the ballot measure to allow physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. A virtually identical initiative appeared on the ballot in 1991. It lost by seven percentage points, but 17 years later it passed by 58-42 — a remarkable swing of 15 points. Or take the votes to raise taxes on November 4th. Here we are, surrounded by a cloudy economic forecast punctuated by dark headlines: a time when people postpone unnecessary expenses, including additional taxes. And yet people voted “yes” for a higher sales tax to build out light rail. “Yes” for higher property taxes to expand parks in Bellevue, Mercer Island, and Seattle. “Yes” for even higher property taxes in Seattle for Pike Place Market improvements.

In 2000, the Gore-Lieberman ticket defeated George Bush by 5.5 percent. Four years later, John Kerry beat Bush here by 7 percent. This year the Republicans nominated “the one Republican who could win Washington,” John McCain. He lost to Barack Obama by 17 points. In King County Obama crushed McCain by 41 points, 69-28.

Dino Rossi ran a better campaign than he did four years ago, when he ran seven points ahead of George Bush. This year he had more donors (56,000-plus) than any candidate for any office in state history and ran 11 points ahead of the national ticket. He finished six points behind Gov. Christine Gregoire.

So it’s perfectly understandable why some people are referring to the GOP in the past tense, especially when legislators in the edge cities surrounding Seattle (Redmond, Kirkland, Bellevue, Newcastle, Renton, and of course, Mercer Island) are migrating toward the Democrats as well. But I nevertheless think that these Republican obits are premature. The Republicans are about to rebound and even they haven’t noticed it yet. Here is why.

True, voters emphatically rejected Big Government Republicanism, the early ineptitude in Iraq, and the economic chaos swirling around George Bush. Granted, voters are also more socially liberal in western Washington. But they also get impatient with irresponsible governance and they are likely going to see a lot of it soon.

In less than two months, Gov. Gregoire and a Legislature dominated by Democrats will be staring at a $3.5 billion hole (an amount equilavent to 10 percent of the existing general fund) as they prepare the next state budget. State Rep. Hans Dunshee, one of the Democrats’ budget movers in the House, thinks it could well top $4 billion. They can close this deficit by cutting spending, but that’s a lot of spending to cut and it will antagonize the very groups that most strongly supported the Governor’s re-election. Or they could raise taxes, but Governor Gregoire repeatedly promised during and after the campaign that she wouldn’t do that.A fast-growing economy could generate some revenue to cover the bills, but the economy isn’t growing now, it’s shrinking.

If the Governor and Legislature don’t trim enough and the revenue shortfalls continue, she’ll be forced to call a special session, or two, or three. That scenario is what doomed John Spellman, the last governor to face a deficit of this magnitude during the recession of ’82. Battles over spending priorities and gored oxen can get particularly nasty when one party controls both the legislative and executive branches of government.

The biggest adversary facing the Democrats right now is arithmetic. Republican numbers will grow two years from now, just as the Democrats recovered in ’82 after being buried in the Reagan landslide in ’80, and just as the Republicans made big gains in ’94 after new Gov. Lowry and a Democratic Legislature startled the electorate with a combination of ambitious spending and unexpected tax increases. If the Obama administration is popular two years from now, it can mitigate but not erase these difficulties. And if there is tension between Nancy Pelosi and the White House, then it might make things even worse. (That’s what happened in ’94, when Washington briefly filled seven of its nine congressional districts with Republicans.)

I would expect the Democrats to still be the majority party after 2010. But they won’t be the dominant party. And state politics in 2012 will be wild and wide open. Just watch.

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