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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