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Have Republicans found a path to reclaim some high state offices?

Those stepping stones are King County executive and Attorney General. New election rules make the King County post within reach for Susan Hutchison, running as an independent.
Susan Hutchison

Susan Hutchison Hutchison campaign

In the Grand Old Party year of 1969, Republican Slade Gorton was inaugurated Washington’s attorney general and Republican John Spellman was elected as King County’s very first county executive. Forty years later, a Republican in the moderate mold of Gorton (at least the 1969 Gorton) is attorney general and there’s a chance that another who fits that general description could be elected county executive. Might this be a 1969 redux?

For those who believe that the Republican Party has been Palinized into extinction it is instructive to remember that the stepping stones for the state’s top elective offices, that of governor and U.S. Senate, have been the offices of AG and King County exec, two jobs that Republicans have serious shots at winning. Since 1969, when Washington was a clear two-party state, it has become much more Democratic. However,the state has shown its disdain for party label by adopting a “top two” primary and a nonpartisan ballot for King County, giving an advantage to the perfect white teeth and flawless complexion of Susan Hutchison and the Boy-Scout eagerness of Rob McKenna.

History tells us that of the six men who’ve held King County’s top office, three have come from each party (I exclude Kurt Triplett for now). Two have been elected governor (Spellman and Gary Locke) and a third (Ron Sims) ran credible campaigns for both Senate and governor. And of the only three attorneys general in the last 40 years, both Gorton and Gov. Chris Gregoire vaulted into higher office and Ken Eikenberry (1981-93) came within a whisker of the governorship.

Washingtonians apparently look to those offices — primarily administrative rather than legislative — for our top spots. This is in marked contrast to Oregonians, who over and over promote a secretary of state (Mark Hatfield, Tom McCall, Barbara Roberts in the modern era).

Presumably, this is because attorneys general and King County executives can generate lots of news coverage (“free media” in campaignspeak), particularly in the Puget Sound media market. Think of Gorton with his Indian-fishing battles, Gregoire with the cigarette lawsuits, and county executives with their epic showdowns over stadiums. Big issues can kill a politician, of course, and promising King County execs Randy Revelle and Tim Hill lost in part because of failures to solve Seattle Mariners’ issues. Adequately handled, however, big issues create an opportunity for big headlines and website hits.

Hutchison is the unlike earlier Republicans in these slots since she is totally untested in politics and government and without prior indication of political interest. She is a celebrity candidate in the purest sense. Earlier television political winners Charles Royer and Jim Compton were political reporters, which gave them knowledge if not hands-on experience of local government. Hutchison was an anchor. Television anchors read and make viewers comfortable; reporters deliver the uncomfortable news. In her Seattle career she played third-banana to Jean Enerson and Kathi Goertzen.

Republicans like celebrity candidates. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan, George Murphy, Sonny Bono, Jim Bunning, J.C. Watts, and Steve Largent are all former actors or athletes. Washington Republicans haven’t previously gone that route, and Hutchison may not even be a real Republican, which makes her candidacy even more interesting.

She’s risked alienation from the hard-core GOP base by taking the “wrong” side of the two big ballot measures of 2009. She opposes the repeal of the Legislature’s granting of rights to gays registered as domestic partners (Referendum 71) and she firmly rejects the latest Tim Eyman property-tax hammer (Initiative 1033). Since Washington has no party-registration requirement, we can only surmise from her campaign contributions history and isolated statements that she would, in that glorious 2008 label, “favor G.O.P. Party.”

Under the top-two system, there’s no reason someone cannot do well running as an independent, if they can gin up campaign money. King County’s record of producing higher-office candidates is now joined to a nonpartisan campaign. Unlike Dow Constantine, who has embraced the Democratic label, Hutchison keeps open the option of holding to an independent label, should she be elected.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Nov 3, 7:06 a.m. Inappropriate

One minor clarification: When Ron Sims ran for U.S. Senate in 1994, he was still a King County Councilmember and not yet County Executive.

Mannix

Posted Tue, Nov 3, 9:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Floyd's only partially right on these offices being paths to the top political spots.
While three of the past five governors have been county executives, only two of those were from King (Locke, Spellman); Booth Gardner ascended from Pierce County exec. Of the nine governors since WWII, those are the only three who were county execs.
Attorney general is another story. Gregoire is the only A.G. to be elected governor in modern times, and she and Gorton (U.S. Senate) are the only two A.G.'s in that period to get such a significant promotion.
U.S. Senate is where this idea really breaks down: Washington voters like legislators for those jobs. Since WWII, only Gorton (state A.G.) and Harry Cain (Tacoma mayor) weren't lawmakers directly before getting the big job.
The rest were running on their experience as members of Congress or the state Legislature: Bone, Wallgren, Jackson, Magnuson, Adams, Murray and Cantwell.

olyroll

Posted Tue, Nov 3, 11:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Prof. McKay doesn't mention that there is a public bias toward certain offices. Even Seattle area voters generally lean toward Republican candidates for certain offices both locally and statewide. Usually these are races which the GOP stereotype of "tough" or fiscally conservative is an advantage in the job description. Attorney General, State Treasurer and King County Prosecutor are all offices in which progressive Democrats seem to have a disadvantage from the start.

Any candidate that can break this bias has automatic credibility for the next rung. If a Republican can get elected from a typically Democratic seat like King County Exec, or any high-profile Seattle office, he/she obviously has the potential for statewide office. Similarly, a Democrat who does well in a traditionally Republican seat, like former A.G. Gregoire, is expected to be pushed by their party for advancement.

fred117

Posted Tue, Nov 3, 1:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting conclusion: "...Hutchison keeps open the option of holding to an independent label, should she be elected." Not much liklihood that she'd keep that independent label in a run for statewide office.

No matter how Palinized (great term!) the Republican Party gets, they will still put up a GOP label candidate, at least for key offices like governor and AG. And of course the Dems will also, in this increasingly Democratic state.

Net result under Top Two: One Republican and one Democrat on the ballot in November, with independent candidate(s) out of the running. Yes, in theory an independent candidate could poll ahead of a weak D or a weak R, but that candidate would need more star power (not to mention intellectual heft) than Ms. Hutchison possesses, or will ever possess.

Posted Tue, Nov 3, 10:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Dr. McKay’s on the right track, but I think if she's successful - in doubt as I write this - the new formula for Republicans will be: get all elective offices reclassified as "non-partisan," avoid taking stances on any major issues (see the movie "The Distinguished Gentleman" for a hint of media avoidance in a different, but comical way), get endorsements from known names in the other party, sound populist themes...and, if you can get a local celebrity to fit into these shoes, run them! I saw two of her ads last night, extremely effective, as she looked straight at the camera, as if she was on the TV news, and criticized Dow without sounding critical.

bricsa

Posted Wed, Nov 4, 9:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Here's one apparent lesson: In a major, closely-watched race, many voters will see through a candidate's attempt to hide being a republican, and/or hide major elements of one's political beliefs.

mhays

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