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What Kirby Wilbur will mean as state GOP chair

The new state Republican chair believes in a big tent, a la Ronald Reagan. And, like Reagan, he tends to be underestimated.

Kirby Wilbur, the new Washington state GOP chair, has appeared occasionally on C-SPAN.

Kirby Wilbur, the new Washington state GOP chair, has appeared occasionally on C-SPAN. C-SPAN

When Republican State Chairman Luke Esser made his pitch to Party leaders for another term on Saturday, he asked a good question:  Is the party better off today than four years ago?  The answer, Esser said, is yes in “every meaningful measure.”  He was correct.

But challenger Kirby Wilbur asked a different question:  “The question is not, are we better off.  The question is, are we as good as we could be?”  That query neatly illustrates Wilbur’s skill at crafting a message and knowing his audience.  Later that day, nearly two-thirds of the Republican leaders swept him into office. 

There was a time when a race for Republican chairman in Washington was really a vote on larger, national direction and ideology. Think Eisenhower vs. Taft, Rockefeller vs. Goldwater, or most famously, Gerald Ford and later Ambassador George H.W. Bush vs. Ronald Reagan in ’76 and ’80. 

Saturday’s vote was not one of those contests.

Last November much of the rest of the country witnessed a Republican wave of historic proportions.  The GOP won 63 seats in the U.S. House, the most since FDR was president.  As a result, there are now more Republicans in the House since Truman was president.  Republicans also gained more than 700 legislative seats, and now hold more of them since 1928, when Coolidge was president.  They won control of the North Carolina and Alabama legislature for the first time since the '70s — the 1870s, when Ulysses S. Grant was president. They also won control of either the House or Senate in Iowa and Indiana, purple states like Colorado, and blue states, including Maine and Minnesota. 

That’s one reason Republican leaders here were restless. It may have been a good election for Republicans, but not like most other states this year and certainly nothing like 1994, when both houses in Olympia flipped to the Republicans and six new Republicans joined Jennifer Dunn in Congress. Adding to the frustration is that many of these races were victories that evaporated.  On election night, control of the state Senate was within the Republicans’ grasp until Tony Moore fell behind incumbent Democrat Tracy Eide in Federal Way. Then Gregg Bennett, a superb candidate, lost his lead to Bellevue Democrat Rodney Tom, who ironically first won his Senate seat by switching parties and beating incumbent Sen. Luke Esser.

Most heartbreaking for Republicans was just missing the 2nd Congressional District, which runs from Mukilteo up to the Canadian Border. John Koster had been trending ahead of incumbent Rick Larsen, and like several other Republicans was ahead on election night until most of the last-minute votes broke heavily for Larsen.  More than half a dozen other Rs suffered similar fates.  Reason? The Democrats had a better ground game.

First came the October visits from President Obama, Vice President Biden, former President Clinton, and First Lady Michelle Obama that rallied more Democrats to vote.  Then came the audacious deployment of hundreds of paid workers and volunteers from the party, the candidates, and the unions, who were deployed to ensure that every identified Democrat in Washington (not an easy task, as we don’t register by party in this state) received his or her ballot and returned it.

Nothing was spared or taken for granted in the effort to save Patty Murray’s U.S. Senate seat. Result? The Democrats got out more of their voters in a Republican year.  In Esser’s defense, the same thing happened in Oregon and California.  Identifying and turning out voters before, during, and especially after Election Day (in the case of provisional and disputed ballots) is now a party’s most important role, especially in a vote-by-mail state.   

But why would the Republican faithful turn to Kirby Wilbur  The news media describe him as a “former radio talk-show host” or “longtime conservative radio host.”  That’s not actually Wilbur’s main appeal as a party leader. Wilbur is superb at firing up an audience whether he is standing in front of a crowd or sitting behind a microphone.  But he’s also been walking his talk for more than 40 years.  He’s done his share of stuffing envelopes and pounding in yard signs, to being a precinct leader, to running the State Young Republicans back when he was one, to serving as legislative district leader and presiding as chairman of several state GOP conventions (a truly thankless task requiring immense patience and an ironic sense of humor). So he knows how politics works from the ground up.  


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jan 25, 8:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent piece.

The challenge for Wilbur however will be to shake his past persona and become the "big tent" leader who can draw moderate Rs and some Democrats to McKenna. The mainstream won't know about who grew up with who, who likes who, etc. Right now this essentially Blue state just knows that a bellicose talk-jock is now leading a party that loves tea and Clint Didier. And Rob McKenna (who would make a good Governor) must satisfy them all. If not done well, he will come off as either too right wing or disingenuous.

The next Republican governor, whenever that happens, will be a moderate. The Party, McKenna and Kirby Wilbur have a tough row to hoe.

chance

Posted Tue, Jan 25, 8:33 a.m. Inappropriate

interesting piece. One tiny fix: Senate didn't flip Republican in '94. That happened in the '96 election.

Ammons

Posted Tue, Jan 25, 8:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Until the Republicans drop the right to life group, the fundamental Christians, the corporate sponsorships, ie representing big banks, and insurance Jesus Christ could be the leader of the WA GOP and it wouldn't make a difference.

Rob McKenna has showed his true colors by opposing the Health Care bill. He's swinging right to get the GOP firmly under him and thus has lost the chance at reelection to anything better than dog catcher. The guy is toast.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Jan 25, 9:08 a.m. Inappropriate

This is partisan political spin masquerading as journalism.

woofer

Posted Tue, Jan 25, 9:37 a.m. Inappropriate

It's a column that tries to make the case for Wilbur. Columnists can do that. Regardless, it needs to be read as a one-sided piece, and clearly part of an effort to grease the wheels for the new guy. The only question is how much is Carlson's actual ideas vs. committee talking points.

mhays

Posted Tue, Jan 25, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

John - Nice piece, with some illuminating insights. Plus a great line:
" he also understands the difference between the Tea Party Movement and the Black Helicopter crowd." Not certain I completely agree with you, or that there is all that much difference, but a great line. As a Democrat, I only agree with Kirby about 20% of the time. But he knows how to run a campaign and craft a message. We D's are going to have to work even harder.

Ross Kane
Warm Beach

Ross

Posted Tue, Jan 25, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

"GaryP" faults Republicans for "representing... insurance" and claims that "Rob McKenna has showed [sic] his true colors by opposing the Health Care bill. He's swinging right to get the GOP firmly under him..." This analysis ignores the fact that the "individual mandate" (the constitutionality of which McKenna is challenging) was a gift by the Democrats in the White House and Congress to the health insurance industry in order to give the insurance companies the bigger risk pool necessary to keep premiums from exploding under all the new government-mandated coverage requirements. Which aspect of the insurance industry is our Republican Attorney General pimping for in opposing it?

The fact of the matter is, the individual mandate is on very shaky constitutional grounds. Never before has the federal government required citizens to purchase a product or service just by dint of their being alive. The individual mandate would solve a lot of our health care problems; but if it's not constitutional, it's not constitutional, and the government is still supposed to be bound by the Constitution. If upheld, it would set a very dangerous precedent. Good intentions count for nothing in constitutional law. Most despots started out with good intentions. The government needs to live within its constitutional limitations, just as we all must live withing the law, no matter how inconvenient we may find it.

At times in our history, the Constitution has inconvenienced both Republicans and Democrats. McKenna is doing a Good Thing devoid of personal partisanship in standing up for the Constitution's limitations on government power.

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Jan 25, 11:13 a.m. Inappropriate

The constitution has no specific text which prohibits the health care law. It's in fact silent on the issue, and instead the law relies on the interstate commerce clause, which does give pretty wide latitude for such regulations.

However it does have a clear statement about illegal search and seizure, the 4th Amendment, and yet the TSA appears to violate it regularly. President Bush, & Sec. Defense Donald Rumsfield violated it by seizing an American Citizen, José Padilla, and holding him for 3 years before trying him. And at the trial for which he was convicted, none of the original charges which he was held for were used.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Jan 25, 8:09 p.m. Inappropriate

I was very interested and pleased to learn that Reagan's ranch has been successfully preserved. I well remember how he was regarded as a very good steward of the place, even as he appointed James Watt and Anne Gorsuch to take care of the lands that belong to the rest of us. I'm glad to see today's Republicans are proudly carrying on that part of the Gipper's legacy.

Posted Tue, Jan 25, 10:27 p.m. Inappropriate

I’ve often written that there isn’t a way for Republicans around here to shoot themselves in the foot they haven’t thought of, but I that have great confidence in their ability to invent new ones. And once again, it appears they’ve done it by electing Kirby Wilber.

Esser was very successful in recruiting better quality candidates than at any time in recent memory. Wilber says he wants to take the party in a “new direction” (Read: hard right).

The Democrats immediately began gleefully proclaiming the R’s had elected Washington’s version of Rush Limbaugh as their new leader. With 16 years of his radio rhetoric to draw upon, they may be able to paint moderates and incumbents with Wilber’s brush, making his radio tirades the focal point rather than the individuals in races where Republicans have good, solid candidates.

Wilber’s election could also harm AG?Rob McKenna’s run for Governor in 2012. With the party dominated by right-leaning rural folks who want one of their own calling the shots heading into the 2012 elections, there's a very real possibility McKenna will face a high-profile opponent from within the GOP — perhaps Clint Didier?

Voters want action and civility — not confrontational rhetoric. And while some Republicans were unhappy with the gains the party made under Esser in light of what happened nationally, I suspect under Wilber, the Republicans will have a hard time recruiting the quality of candidates the party desperately needs to sustain and strengthen the gains it made in 2010

Posted Wed, Jan 26, 2:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Not to be too blunt about it, but in the above photo Wilbur certainly looks like someone from the hard riight. Appearance-wise, that is.

Posted Wed, Jan 26, 2:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Don't underestimate the Power of God/Jesus Christ. This country belongs to God and whatever happens,is His Plan. I prefer to be on the side of the Truth of the Bible, which calls abortion and sexual immorality sin. If the Conservatives avoid talking about it for fear of losing, then they've been deceived. Perhaps it's time to switch to the Tea Party, which doesn't seem to be intimidated by politicians. Sarah Palin is my kind of leader.

Go Kirby! As long as you continue to lead by Biblical principles and represent us Conservatives, I will support you and consider voting for those candidates that you suggest.

He will cover you with His feathers , And under His wings you will find refuge.Psalm 91:4

Jean

Posted Wed, Jan 26, 9:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Jean, I nominate you for assistant Republican Party chair! Because I'm a democrat.

mhays

Posted Wed, Jan 26, 10:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Don't underestimate the power of the Republicans to convince idiots to vote for their candidates. Dems were shocked that Bush won again in 04; we should be wiser now, but apparently we aren't.

sarah90

Posted Thu, Jan 27, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Pleeeeeease, underestimate us. However, name calling and insults do nothing to advance your issues and causes. I've read the end of the story and Christians win.

Jean

Posted Sat, Jan 29, 9:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Go Jean! Fight the power! Raise money and turn out! Get your favorite candidates nominated!

And thank you!

mhays

Posted Sun, Jan 30, 7:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, Jean...the Christian right has always been underestimated here in Washington. I recall when no one except the Christian right thought that Ellen Craswell had a chance of being elected Governot, and THEN look what happened! Oh, wait, she lost. Well, that's OK...the big wall of Christian right votes in King, Thurston and Snohomish Counties will carry the day for the GOPs in '12 as they did in other recent elections. Oh, wait...that didn't happen either. Well, one thing a lot of us do underestimate is the amount of fantasy and wishful thinking which enters into the political strategy of the far and/or Christian Right. They actually think that people just don't understand their message, but the problem is...we understand it only too well.

TaylorB1

Posted Mon, Jan 31, 8:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Wilbur is offering sname oil to the Washington GOP by saying since the nation as a whole voted in more Republicans, that this state didn't shows a failure of leadership here.

The reason Washington State stayed Democratic is because we are increasingly not like the rest of the country. We are more forward thinking, more global, more culturally diverse, and, to put it plainly, increasingly smarter as compared with much of the nation.

We didn't give in to the fear, slurs, and 10-second TV ads to the degree the Great Heartland did.

And it's no wonder. We're a little enclave of the future in a sea of the past.

Goforride

Posted Mon, Jan 31, 9:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Kirby is an excellent choice for GOP Chair. I have known him and worked with him in countless campaigns and GOP efforts for 30 years, I am proud to call him my friend. Kirby knows what it will take to win. He has that "Git'R Done" attitude. He will energetically and intelligently find the formula to reverse the trend in Washington politics where Democrats running for Statewide office simply gaze 360 degrees from the top of the Space Needle to see all the voters they need to win a race in Washington. Congratulations Kirby, I am ready and willing to help you in your task!

mbednarz

Posted Mon, Jan 31, 4:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Because a message is not popular, doesn't make it a wrong message. I, as a Conservative Christian, believe that the Founding Fathers were wise in the way they structured the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. I believe in a small, financially responsible government led by citizen leaders; not career politicians. Why is it OK for federal employees to have their own pension system and healthcare program? They're the employees; we're the employers. Why should I have to re-balance my budget every time they raise taxes, but the government doesn't have to balance theirs? With what kind of reasoning does my hard-eaned money belong to them. According to the Readers Digest, last year, 74% of federal employees got an average of a 9% raise In his speech, Obama said he has frozen employee's wages for the next 2 years. Did you get a 9% raise? Do you even have a job or did you lose yours in the last 2 years? Since the Federal Government doesn't generate its own income, that money's being ripped from those of us left working. It's not about Republican vs Democrat. It's about Big Government vs Small Government.

Jean

Posted Tue, Feb 1, 11:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Goforride - what you just said is absolute B-S! There is nothing forward-thinking about socialism.

Posted Wed, Feb 2, 9:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you, Jean, for your thoughtful comments. How I wish we could back to the days of George W. and his Republican-controlled Congress, when they reduced the size of government, balanced the budget, and all was right with the world... Yes, indeed; you Republicans sure know how to get things right, don't you?...

Posted Wed, Feb 2, 2:15 p.m. Inappropriate

To R, where, in anything I wrote, did you see me identify myself as a Republican; or align myself with George Bush? Many on both sides of the aisle and in the Oval Office have contributed to the demise of the original intent of the Founding Fathers. The power of the amendment process was to give the people a way to make changes, not the whim of the ruling party. It is arrogant of them to think they know best how to live our lives. I've done a better job of taking care of myself than some of them have taken care of themselves.

I'm a Conservative, who believes in less government, more fiscal responsibility from our leaders, and more of the Godly principles that produced a document and society unprecedented in the history of mankind.

Jean

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