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.
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.