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Best of 2012: Why the Republicans keep coming up short for governor

The state GOP legitimately has the governor blues, but there's no reason to despair about ever winning a chance to lead the state again.
Jay Inslee, left, and Rob McKenna at a debate.

Jay Inslee, left, and Rob McKenna at a debate. State of Reform

Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is on election coverage. This article was originally published Dec. 4, 2012.

It has been 32 years since a Republican in Washington has won a race for governor, stretching back to 1980 when the Democrats were so divided that both President Jimmy Carter and Gov. Dixy Lee Ray faced primary challenges. Carter survived his from Ted Kennedy but was buried in the 41-state Reagan landslide. Dixy was tackled in the primary by Seattle state Sen. Jim McDermott, the only progressive candidate in a five member field. Three Republicans — King County Executive John Spellman, co-Speaker of the State House Duane Berentson, and Secretary of State Bruce Chapman — divided the non-liberal vote with Dixy, allowing McDermott to squeak through with the nomination. But in November, McDermott got 43.5 percent of the vote against the genial, pipe-smoking Spellman, “the man who built the Kingdome.”

Since then, it’s been eight consecutive goose eggs for the Republicans, the longest dry spell for any party in the country. Were all these races out of reach? Not really. Washington is more liberal today than it was during the Reagan era, but of those eight races, one was essentially a tie, one was squandered, one was blown in the primary, two were lost at the national level, and two others were unwinnable. Let’s take a quick look at each of them.

1984: John Spellman vs. Booth Gardner. Washington was hammered harder by the early '80s recession than any time since the Depression with unemployment topping 12 percent. (It hit 11.2 percent during our current economic ordeal.) At the national level, President Reagan went all in behind a controversial program to generate growth by cutting tax rates. But in Olympia, Gov. Spellman opted for consensus. Getting all sides and major stakeholders in a room together always sounds good on paper, but endless frustration and multiple special sessions resulted, as chronicled in former Sen. George Scott's superb history, A Majority of One. Big tax increases. Big spending cuts. Gaping deficits. Voters weren’t happy.

Republicans were hoping that Democrats would renominate McDermott, but instead they wisely chose Pierce County Executive Booth Gardner, with deep roots in the corporate community. That November, while Reagan won 59 percent of the vote in Washington, en route to a 49 state landslide, Spellman mustered just 47 percent of the vote against Gardner.

1988: Bob Williams vs. Booth Gardner. One of two unwinnable races for the R's, meaning that no one could have won it. The economy was soaring, and Booth's favorables were sky-high. Bob Williams, the budget whiz of House Republicans, bested King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng in the Republican primary, and then had exactly nowhere to go. Gardner ran with a clunky but functional slogan: “He's made government more efficient so it can afford to be more compassionate." It worked. Booth became the only gubernatorial candidate in the last 75 years to win more than 60 percent of the vote.

1992: Mike Lowry vs. Ken Eikenberry. Mike Lowry inspired state Democrats by running an impassioned if unsuccessful race against Dan Evans for the U.S. Senate seat left open by Henry "Scoop" Jackson's untimely death in 1983 (was it really almost 30 years ago?). He tried again for the Senate against Slade Gorton in '88, but fell short, as Gorton became the first Senate candidate to win while losing King County.

Lowry decided to try once more in a statewide contest, for governor in '92. His opponent was the Fred MacMurray-like attorney general, Ken Eikenberry, who beat the moderately liberal Congressman Sid Morrison in a rancorous primary. Many people still expected Eikenberry to win. But three problems were looming. Instead of running to win, Eikenberry's campaign ran not to lose, avoiding many public appearances, even snubbing the business community by skipping the annual Association of Washington Business (AWB) gathering at Semiahmoo. Lowry, who ran an impressive, measured campaign, didn’t make that same mistake.


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