Dino Rossi + money + smart candidate recruiting + luck = a state GOP comeback

It's tough calculus, says the former state party chair, and the result isn't going to materialize overnight. But it's a way for Washington Republicans to rebuild the party from the bottom up. Second of two parts.
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It's tough calculus, says the former state party chair, and the result isn't going to materialize overnight. But it's a way for Washington Republicans to rebuild the party from the bottom up. Second of two parts.

Editor's note: The author was chair of the Washington state Republican Party from 2001-06. This is the second of two parts. The first part was posted on Tuesday, July 24.

As I wrote in part 1, in 2006 the national GOP was in decline, and in the important suburban-Seattle battleground Democrats ousted many GOP legislative incumbents. It was a massacre. In 2004, Republicans had fared pretty well at the top of the ticket – except for the narrow and debatable loss of Dino Rossi to Christine Gregoire in the race for Washington governor. But in 2006, at the important entry level to partisan politics, the GOP was crushed.

So how do Washington state Republicans come back? There is a long road, and a shortcut, but either way they need some help at the national level.

My father owned and managed car dealerships. If the factory sent him cars that didn't sell, there was very little he could do at the local level. The same is true in politics. For the past eight years, the Republican Party has been defined by George W. Bush. Until the 2006 mid-term election, Team Bush had been a huge political success, but not in Washington state or the rest of the West Coast. Republican candidates here have had to convince tens of thousands of voters to vote for them, despite their opposition to the president. In 2004, gubernatorial candidate Rossi received 66,520 more votes than did the president. Having to run significantly ahead of the top of your ticket is a major burden for down-ballot candidates, such as those running for the Legislature.

In less than a year, the GOP will have a new leader. I was one of the first elected officials in our state to endorse then-Gov. Bush in 1999, and I worked hard for his re-election, so it pains me to say this, but it is critical that the Republicans nominate someone next year who represents new leadership, someone who can redefine and reposition the party. Rudy Guiliani would clearly be such a nominee. Until recently, the same was certainly true of John McCain. Can Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson appeal to secular west coast moderates? I think that is a major question mark.

Another big question is whether the Republican nominee will even try to win over such voters. The Republican electoral college map doesn't need to include the West Coast. Unlike previous Republican presidential campaigns, in 2000 and 2004 the Bush campaign did target Washington and Oregon and did spend money here, especially for get-out-the-vote programs. Those resources were tremendously helpful to the entire Republican ticket. If the Republican nominee writes off Washington early, an uphill climb for state GOP candidates gets even steeper.

Republicans need to cross their fingers and hope their new national leader will campaign on the West Coast and will be able to redefine the GOP. Assuming that the presidential race is at least competitive, there is a shortcut back to power: Elect Dino Rossi governor.

Is Dino going to run? I don't know. I do know that if he chooses to run, the race will be highly competitive. Polls taken since 2005 have consistently shown Gregoire and Rossi neck and neck. Predictions of how that race may play out might be a subject for another time. It suffices to say that if Rossi becomes Governor, if Republicans win that one election, the GOP is instantly back in the game.

A popular, suburban-friendly figure will lead and define the Party. Hundreds of Republicans will move into leadership positions within the administration. Republican legislators, whatever their numbers, will be relevant, backed by the power of the governor. The campaign funding disparity will improve as donors will have to recognize the changed political situation. Rarely has one race been so critical.

With or without a Rossi governorship, however, Republicans need to confront the changes that need to be made. First, they need stay the course established in 2004, and state party leadership needs to do everything possible to unite the party behind statewide candidates who can win in the suburbs. In 2008, that shouldn't be a problem. If Rossi runs, Chairman Luke Esser will have a ready-made, battle-tested, suburban-attractive statewide ticket. Going forward, the state party will need to continue to field statewide candidates who are conservative enough to unite and excite the base yet moderate enough to win.

The real problem in recent years, however, has been in legislative races, especially state House races. Until the national wave hit them in 2006, the Senate Republicans had been holding their own. They recruited good local candidates for key races, like Whatcom County Sheriff Dale Brandland. Their numbers hovered at or near a majority. Not so with the House.

Legislative races are largely controlled by the caucus political committees, not the state party. Caucus leadership and their political committee staff recruit the candidates, raise the money, hire consultants, and decide which races to target. Over the past several elections, Democratic Speaker Frank Chopp has built a formidable political operation while his opponents have been in a constant state of turmoil.

Clyde Ballard led the House Republicans from 1987 to 2002. I served on Clyde's leadership team in the early 1990s. He wasn't as political as Chopp has been, but Ballard always had his eye on raising money, recruiting candidates, and winning elections. Since Ballard retired, his successors have had to spend more time watching their backs than they have working to win races.

Since Ballard left, the House Republicans have gone from one leader to another. From Cathy McMorris to Richard DeBolt to Bruce Chandler and now back to DeBolt. One acrimonious leadership election after another. Constant turnover among top legislative and campaign committee staff. A caucus at war with itself is in no position to challenge the Chopp machine.

The House Republicans need to settle on a leadership team and give it time to turn things around. DeBolt was re-elected last November, along with a leadership team of those considered loyal to him, so it appears that has occurred. Now the House Rs need to dig into the hard work of politics.

They need to raise more money.

They can't out-raise the Ds at this point, but they can and must do better. They need to upgrade their political staff and improve their relationship with consultants. Given their financial disadvantage, they need to be patient and disciplined, and focus their money on five to eight races, maximum.

Most importantly, they need to get serious and systematic about recruiting high-quality candidates. Rather than simply allowing GOP activists to become candidates in winnable races, DeBolt and company need to identify and meet with Republican-leaning suburban city council members and mayors, school board members, PTA presidents, and other civic leaders. Those are the folks who need to be persuaded to run for the Legislature. This needs to be a full-time, year-round program that will aid the House and eventually provide candidates for the state Senate and other offices. Nothing could be more valuable in terms of rebuilding the party's long term viability.

Politics is a cyclical, unstable business. When I left the House for the King County Council in 1993, I was one of only 33 Republicans. A year later, there were 62 Rs in the House. Maybe the national mood will swing Republican as Bush leaves the stage. Maybe Dino Rossi will be elected governor. Much, much stranger things have happened.

In the meantime, Washington Republicans need to re-focus on the basics. Keep your message suburban-friendly. Talk about the things voters care about: traffic, taxes and spending, crime and public safety, schools. Raise money. And most importantly, start recruiting candidates who are part of the civic fabric of the communities they seek to represent. Doing so will not only be good for the GOP, it will be good for our state.

Our entire political system is based on competition and the accountability it brings. A one-party democracy isn't healthy. Politics is about struggle and choice. We need the Republicans to put up a fight.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.