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    The state GOP: Down for the count?

    Washington state will be a one-party state for quite a while, as the GOP strategy of rebuilding from the governor's mansion ran into the tide of states tilting decisively to one side. Here are some ways to avoid the lazy politics of single-party rule.
    Rob McKenna

    Rob McKenna KCTS 9

    Rob McKenna

    Rob McKenna Anna Ream

    Is Washington state now, like California, a one-party state? Possibly so, but there are some caveats to such a conclusion.

    The election tinted Washington a deeper shade of blue. Republicans failed to gain three critical open statewide offices (governor, attorney general, auditor) and lost three open Congressional races (the new 10th, the reshaped 1st, and Norm Dicks' fiefdom, the 6th); nor could the party take the state Senate, as once forecast. The GOP lost two fronts in the culture wars: gay marriage and pot legalization. Its sole shows of strength were passing another supermajority initiative by Tim Eyman and allowing charter schools.

    If Washington is now a permanently blue state, with Democrats in control of all the key state offices and the legislature, it is hardly alone as a single-party state. Fully 46 states now have a single party in control of both chambers of the legislature. (The exceptions: Iowa, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and unicameral Nebraska.) A Pew survey finds more than a third of states with supermajority control. As for states where the governor is a different party than the legislature, that number is down to 12.

    But even if the states are tilting toward one party or the other, the nation remains closely divided. In legislatures, Democrats gained eight chambers overall, to the Republicans four. And remember that Romney won 24 states, some by wide margins. Republicans control the House and, through the filibuster, semi-control the Senate. Republicans held every governor's mansion up for re-election, added North Carolina, and now have 30 governorships, the highest total in 12 years.

    The Democratic sweep in Washington, taking all the top statewide offices except Secretary of State (long a token Republican slot), is not surprising. Republican turnout was low (no real contest for the presidency or for Sen. Maria Cantwell’s seat), Rob McKenna proved an unexciting candidate who ran a mediocre campaign and Gov.-elect Jay Inslee rode a tested locomotive into office (turn out the base, say little that could offend, and demonize the Republican as extreme on women's issues and the environment).

    California, electing super-majorities to both chambers for the first time in 79 years, is an extreme case of this tilt. As goes California in politics, so goes Washington state. The Evergreen State is purple no more.

    The polarization of the states illustrates the thesis of an interesting new book, The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop, which shows “how Americans have sorted themselves geographically, economically and politically into like-minded communities over the last three decades. Homogeneity may be a perk of the unprecedented choice our society offers — but it also breeds economic inequality, cultural misunderstanding, political extremism and legislative gridlock.”

    In this state, Republicans have brought a permanent minority status upon themselves, not just by failing to adapt to growing demographic trends (minorities, highly educated technical workers) that favor the Democrats.

    For the past two decades, the state GOP has been controlled, at the grassroots level, by Christian conservatives and rural, small-government politicians. In 1996, the party ran the evangelical Christian Ellen Craswell, and in 2000 the talk-show conservative John Carlson, both of whom lost badly to Gov. Gary Locke.

    For the past three elections, the state GOP has hoped to solve its statewide problems by electing a softer-edge, suburban King County candidate, thinking that the only way to save the party was to elect a centrist governor who could then rebuild the party, top-down. Dino Rossi tried twice, but couldn’t overcome his casual, substance-free persona.

    McKenna has long been the great hope, being very substantive and willing to cross-dress politically by trying to get to the left of Democrats on education funding. It didn't help that he ran in a year where Gov. Romney gave this kind of repositioning a bad name, and McKenna came off as too much of a wonky creature of government and policy-shops. His critical mistakes, in appealing to independents, were opposing Obamacare in the courts and backing the Eyman approach to hamstringing government.

    Now what? If the top-down strategy looks increasingly hard to pull off in so Democratic a state, so also building from below, retaking the party from the angry activists, looks even more daunting. And do the Republicans have any likely leaders who could recast the party and possibly run in 2016? Cellular executive John Stanton, Microsoft’s Brad Smith, former U.S. Attorney John McKay (or a second try for McKenna) come to mind as strong candidates, but unlikely to run. There are rising stars in the legislature, reflecting suburban centrism.

    Long-term, the state is probably not going to stay deep blue, as the old union-based industries such as Boeing diminish in proportion to a research-based economy. The long Democratic rule, extending back to 1976, is likely to produce weariness, if not scandals, from so long a period without a worthy opposition party. But short-term, the GOP in this state will have to content itself with minority-party status.

    A single-party state breeds flaccid politics. It also produces a power vacuum to be filled by other means. One possible scenario would be elbowing aside a rookie governor with strong legislative leadership, particularly with Seattle Democrat Ed Murray as new Senate majority leader.

    Or, we could become a two-party state with each party being a faction of the Democratic Party — the status-quo party led by Chopp versus the reform Democrats led by figures such as Rep. Ross Hunter of Medina and King County Executive Dow Constantine. The reform Democrats in the Senate will have their hand strengthened by the few road-kill Democrats who can threaten to switch over to Republicans on key votes. It's also conceivable that Gov. Inslee will decide to throw in with the moderate wing, bowing to the new politics of austerity.

    Then there is the possibility of real change by the national Republican Party. If it manages to reinvent itself as a modernized conservative party, that could revive the local Republicans and change the dreadful national brand of the GOP into something more compelling.

    This election really does seem to be focusing the mind of the national party. Some of the adjustments are a kind of pandering, particularly to women and Hispanic voters. Others are technical, such as imitating the Obama team’s mastery of micro-targeting voters to stimulate turnout. Some are consolation prizes: hold onto the House of Representatives and governorships enough to be slightly relevant; use the filibuster or defecting road-kill Democrats to leverage minority power and appeal to voters who want to hedge their bets against free-spending Democrats.

    Other approaches are more philosophical and appealing, and could bust out of the permanent-opposition fate. One is to devise programs that attract urban voters, particularly the aspiring classes, ending the era of anti-urban politics by the GOP. Another is taking away unneeded tax breaks and subsidies from the wealthy and the politically well-connected, such as Romney’s suggestion of a hard cap on deductions.

    For Republicans, this past election was one last roll of the dice, against poor odds, to see if backlash against Obama could give a fading white and elderly majority one final ticket to the White House. The Republicans feared extinction, with Obamacare producing millions of new grateful voters and immigration reform providing more Democratic voters and recruits to revive the union movement. But rather than change and adapt, the GOP tried to go back to a drying-up well one more time. They should have known it takes more than that to defeat an incumbent president.

    As conservative commenters such as Bret Stephens have been saying, in losing the White House, the GOP “dodged a bullet because a Romney victory would have obscured deeper trends in American politics the GOP must take into account. A Romney administration would also have been politically cautious and ideologically defensive in a way that rarely serves the party well. Finally, the GOP dodged ownership of the second great recession.”

    That may be true, but in Washington state the GOP didn’t dodge a bullet. It took one.

    David Brewster is founder of Crosscut and editor-at-large. You can e-mail him at david.brewster@crosscut.com.

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    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 8:27 a.m. Inappropriate

    Be careful how you throw around that term "centrism." A centrist is someone who throws Republican and Democratic interest groups into a room and lets them fight it out, while waiting outside. Both sides come out in bad shape, and we get the worst of both groups. A moderate sits at the table and tries to synthesize the best ideas of both sides. A moderate takes an active position and tries to get others on-board with it. Moderates have skin in the game, while centrists do not. Centrists are undisciplined; they cut taxes and increase spending to try to please both extremes, giving us deficits. Moderates take responsibility to hold the line.

    McKenna ran a pretty competent campaign, but lost because he was a centrist. Suburban voters would like a moderate, and didn't trust McKenna for the reasons you cited. Having lived in both Washington and Oregon, I can say that Oregon does a good job of producing moderates, but Washington has not been so successful. If the GOP is going to make a comeback here, they need to produce some strong moderates. We will keep rejecting their centrists.

    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 8:44 a.m. Inappropriate

    The state GOP is, and will continue to be, down for the count as long as it continues to be the party of east-of-the-mountain hillbillies and religious nuts.

    The party, both nationally and locally, has never really recovered from the Newt days of the '90's when the business interests co-opted the religious right to be its foot solidiers.

    As long as the GOP is a party against things and not one of being for things, it's going to have to rely on Koch Brothers money to try to win elections with slick negative TV ads as they have nothing otherwise to offer.

    It's really sad watching the party of Dan Evans and William Ruckleshaus still focusing on issues that were settled over a generation ago.


    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 10:39 a.m. Inappropriate

    There are plenty of nuts on both sides of the mountains. It's just that the Seattle nuts call the shots.
    But I'd say it was the Ellen Craswell campaign, and the influx of single-issue "moral majority" types into the caucus system that destroyed the GOP in this state. The Republican party is for a lot of things, and the Democratic party is equally against many things as well. One thing the Democrats seem to be against is fiscal solvency in Olympia. But the GOP isn't going to get the traction it needs at the polls to reform this situation until it realizes that political parties are responsible for the "render unto Caesar" half of the equation, and religion's venue is in the church, not in the halls of power. Then, perhaps, the Republican Party can become the genuine advocate of personal liberty and personal responsibility which the Democratic party emphatically is not.

    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 12:40 p.m. Inappropriate

    I'd be happy with a NO party state. The Democrats were no more noble than the Republicans, they should all be ashamed of themselves.

    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 9:27 a.m. Inappropriate

    Good article but to conclude that the GOP's "...sole shows of strength were passing another super majority initiative by Tim Eyman and allowing charter schools." is a significant over generalization.

    There are a significant number of those who call ourselves "independent Democrats." We continue the tradition of voting for the person and the issue.

    On Charter Schools we know it isn't a silver bullet, but to ban it as the WEA argued was ridiculous. And while Eyman's super majority may well be unconstitutional, the strong support likely sends a signal that too often the public believes legislative tendency is to spend more and fail to prioritize.

    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

    interesting piece ... BTW, the third open office that Ds picked up was auditor, not treasurer, of course.


    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate

    As one who historically has voted split-tickets, I was tempted by the McKenna candidacy. He is arguable both smarter than Inslee and a more successful administrator, plus it really is time for a change of guard in Olympia. But here is why I could not pull the lever for McKenna:
    -- Although McKenna is probably a rational conservative, the GOP overall has yet to end its flirtation with madness and demagoguery. The governance context makes it hard to want to vote for individual conservatives until the fever has broken.
    -- McKenna in supporting the highly political lawsuit against Obamacare was attempting to curry favor with the lunatic right. It was hard to view this as a comforting sign, notwithstanding his later backpedaling.
    -- Earlier Republicans of the Evans and Spellman variety were willing to stand up for the environment when the need arose. I'm not sure McKenna would do that. With multiple coal port applications in the hopper, the state needs a governor who has the courage to say no if that is required.

    My humble view is that the GOP as a whole should remain in the woodshed until it comes to its senses. If the message is clear, that will happen soon enough. Nothing grabs a politician's attention like electoral rejection.


    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 10:02 a.m. Inappropriate

    You pretty much nailed it.

    I think McKenna would probably be a better governor than Inslee, but I don't kid myself for a minute that he would stand up against Big Business or the religious right on their key issues. Eventually, they would yank his leash and make him heel again.


    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 11:44 a.m. Inappropriate

    The difference between Washington and California is that down south, the Republicans are uncompetitive in legislative races in the key districts. Seats that were "swing seats" 10 years ago are solidly blue today. Seats that were solidly red 10 years ago are now "swing seats" today. Until Democrats in Washington show a similar ability to expand their playing field, the GOP here will still have some life.

    Democrats are the natural party of government for Washington State and have been ever since it became a state in 1889. There's nothing wrong with that. The Madisonian system of government wasn't built for two parties. This state has had Democratic governors for 30 years and done better economically than almost every other state in the union. Dems do have their work cut out to get stronger in the suburbs, and to win more people over to a progressive agenda. But they're in a good position to do that. The Big Sort means that the West Coast is a home for liberals. This is what the people have decided, and there's no arguing with it. The question is whether Democrats will become effective leaders of Blue Washington, or screw up and give a truly moderate Republican a chance to sneak into office.


    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 11:55 a.m. Inappropriate

    The near victory of "substance free" Dino Rossi and the fact that McKenna attracted about 1 in 8 of those who voted for Obama despite his Quixotic tilt against health care reform actually suggests that there is a thirst within the state for moderate split-party governance.

    It is not that America is becoming more polarized (there have always been huge regional differences) but rather that the political parties at the national level now have stronger idealogical grip that discourages regional variations that would make each state competitive. Indeed, we have the same problem at the state level where east of the mountains Republicans effectively ensure that there will never be a competitive Republican candidate for King County Executive.


    Posted Thu, Nov 15, 3:38 p.m. Inappropriate

    I seem to remember the 1992 and 1994 elections. Mike Lowry became Governor and the D's swept into real power in the state. Then, in 1994 whap up side the head of a cocky crowd of D's. Quite possible this will occur again. As in this election outcome, pundits like David raised the question of the leveling of the Republican party in this state. Doubtful. Look at the vote on Tim Eyman's Initiative.

    Posted Fri, Nov 16, 5:16 a.m. Inappropriate

    Washington should emulate Nebraska and move to a unicameral (one house) legislature. As the only state in the nation with such an arrangement, the Nebraska legislature is 1) less expensive to the taxpayer 2) less partisan and 3) more transparent.



    Posted Fri, Nov 16, 11:55 a.m. Inappropriate

    The Nebraska legislature is less partisan because it is nonpartisan and not because it is unicameral. A good example of a nonpartisan unicameral body in our local government is the Seattle City Council. Would Blue Light really want to emulate that state wide?


    Posted Fri, Nov 16, 12:37 p.m. Inappropriate

    Actually, WSDW, the numbers of Republicans vs the numbers of Democrats is the key issue that keeps the King County Executive a Democratic seat. The concentration of Democrats in urban areas allowed Republicans to draw districts that kept the Ds in the minority on the King County Council for years, but countywide, we're approaching a 60-40 split.


    Posted Sat, Nov 17, 6:47 a.m. Inappropriate

    Form a shadow government, observe and discuss the Inslee Administration as it double dips us into more economic distress. Continue to point out the actions of the one party monopoly and it's impacts to everyone, particularly those paying the bills.


    Posted Sat, Nov 17, 7:21 a.m. Inappropriate

    David writes:

    "Or, we could become a two-party state with each party being a faction of the Democratic Party — the status-quo party led by Chopp versus the reform Democrats led by figures such as Rep. Ross Hunter of Medina and King County Executive Dow Constantine."
    David, have you, ah, been celebrating the passage of I-502 a little overmuch? That has to be one of the more bizarre statements yet.


    Posted Sat, Nov 17, 9:46 a.m. Inappropriate

    David Brewster always has something interesting to say, and I particularly appreciate that he’s a journalist who actually reads books.

    Not sure I agree that McKenna came off as too wonky. He lost me because he played too fast and loose with budget numbers in order to justify some overheated Republican talking points. This is an example of how McKenna failed to cultivate a Dan Evans-like reputation for data-driven, bipartisan reform.

    David’s point about Democratic scandals is useful. For such a long Democratic reign you’d think that Washington would be a cesspool of corruption. Yet it is actually one of the cleanest states in the country. How could that be?

    I’d argue that we have benefitted from the state’s progressive-era heritage of bipartisan and transparent governmental structures. For example, revenue forecasts are produced by a bipartisan commission, and the capital budget has too many checks and balances for major mischief.

    Posted Sat, Nov 17, 11:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    Sorting increases gridlock at the national level by creating one-party state delegations that combine regional and ideological opposition. But that trend decreases gridlock in states where it leads to one-party rule. Divided government prevents legislative action, which some prefer, but it also prevents accountability. When government is divided, voters do not know whom to blame. For those who subscribe to the laboratories-of-democracy school of federalism, sorting (aka voting with your feet) creates more effective laboratories.


    Posted Sun, Nov 18, 11:28 p.m. Inappropriate

    The Republicans have long slid to the far right of their party in this state. It is particularly telling in the many Republicans who have switched parties and the continued success of Tim Sheldon. The Republican brand has been tarnished in this state.

    Personally I think Jay Inslee did not run a very good campaign. Rob McKenna was far ahead in the polls early last year. McKenna didn't made any glaring errors in his campaign. It's obvious to me that Republicans have become unelectable in King County in just the past ten years.

    Republicans can win locally, but once they are burdened with their state and national platforms they sink like the Titanic.


    Posted Mon, Nov 19, 4:15 p.m. Inappropriate

    The nice thing about one party rule, we know which party to blame.


    Posted Tue, Nov 20, 1:39 a.m. Inappropriate

    The real issue is, the Democrats sold more tickets than there seats to the show.

    What happens when everyone shows up demanding their fair share?


    Posted Tue, Nov 20, 7:27 p.m. Inappropriate

    Republicans are quite simply aging out of being numerous enough to win anything, both here and nationally. It has happened faster in the liberal West, for sure, but soon enough, Texas will go Blue, and the process will continue nationwide.
    I have two young adult kids- and every one of their friends doesnt see any big deal with legal pot, or gay marriage, even if they, personally, dont smoke, or are straight. And I know a bunch of young people who are originally from East of the Mountains, and they, too, are just befuddled by some of McKennas statements on subjects like this.
    Just as gun owners are getting older and older and fewer every year, Republicans are a dying breed, literally, and given 30 or 40 years, we will see them slip completely into irrelevancy.
    Over 80% of the nation is Urban or close in Suburban these days, more and more of the population is Asian and Chicano, and long term, the US is just getting more liberal.


    Posted Wed, Nov 21, 9:28 p.m. Inappropriate

    I keep reading claims (by Republicans) that Republicans have to get the message out better about what they are really for, instead of againsat.

    But what ARE they for? Besides small government, that is.

    That is a serious question. Can anyone tell me?


    Posted Thu, Nov 22, 8:42 a.m. Inappropriate

    The Republicans around here are for big government, on both the state and local levels, Sarah.

    For example, Chris Vance was one of the co-sponsors of the Sound Transit enabling legislation in 1990. It is as "big government" as you can get . . . it will confiscate about $700 million in regressive tax revenue this year alone, with that amount climbing year after year for decades. Not only that, the structure Vance and his colleagues selected for regional transit authorities puts Sound Transit's policy-making board completely beyond the abilities of people to control it by any political means.

    You haven't heard any Republicans take exception to that, have you? See -- the premise of your "serious question" was flat wrong.


    Posted Sat, Nov 24, 1:03 a.m. Inappropriate

    It was indeed a serious question, crossrip, and you mentioned only transportation, and cite only the 90s.

    What are Republicans for now, on other issues? Please answer that (again, serious) question.


    Posted Sat, Nov 24, 2:48 a.m. Inappropriate

    Take a look at the government of China. Being like China is what the Republicans are for.


    Posted Thu, Nov 22, 9:48 p.m. Inappropriate

    I didn't realize there was a lot of differences between the two.


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