Washington's GOP ain't dead yet

A delegate to the state convention talks about what he sees at the grass roots: diverse, enthusiastic, and newly active Republicans who are devoted to reviving and, as necessary, redefining the party.
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A delegate to the state convention talks about what he sees at the grass roots: diverse, enthusiastic, and newly active Republicans who are devoted to reviving and, as necessary, redefining the party.

Is the GOP elephant in Washington dead? Should its tusks be carved into ivory chess pieces with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (gender politics aside) as the respective kings? If you listen to the pundit class, that's the impression you get.

It's as if the entire state was an extension of Seattle's 43rd Legislative District, which hasn't elected a Republican to anything since the Johnson administration - the Andrew Johnson administration.

Must we assume that whoever becomes the Democratic presidential nominee will be elected by acclamation? Might as well go back to the days when it was undignified for a nominee to campaign – just sit on the front porch in a rocking chair and await the inevitable call.

I've got news: It ain't necessarily so. While Republicans face an uphill fight nationally and are in the minority locally, there are signs of revival not only among the faithful but among the newly converted. I've been there, I've seen them, and they are real.

In disaster are sown the seeds of re-birth and renewal, and the 2006 election was a disaster for Republicans. The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives went Democratic for the first time since 1994, and Democrats increased their majorities in Olympia. My own 45th Legislative District (parts of Kirkland and Woodinville, and Redmond, Duvall, Carnation, and the Upper Snoqualmie Valley) went from a Republican state senator and one of each party in the state House to Democrats in all three positions.

The cause was three-fold: an unpopular president and war; an incorrect perception that all Republicans are like disgraced Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, who resigned after being implicated in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal; and profligate spending by GOP Senate and House members. Faced with a choice between wasteful Democrats and Republicans who spent like wasteful Democrats, voters opted for the real deal and elected wasteful Democrats.

One positive result, however, is a renewed debate within the GOP as to what it means to be a Republican and what it takes to win both nationally and in our own backyard. Like all good Republican debates, it started at the grassroots, a part of which is the local and state caucus and convention system – including the 45th District GOP caucus held this past Saturday, March 8, at the Cedar Park Church and School in Bothell.

Like Democrats, Republicans held precinct caucuses in February. To find out about them, however, you had to dig deep - unless you wanted to read about problems, and then there was no shortage of news. Statewide, we elected delegates to county conventions based on their preference for a presidential candidate. Since Sen. John McCain of Arizona was the only gladiator left standing in our over-the-top-rope battle royal, our turnout was smaller than the Democrats'. If the matter isn't in doubt, even the faithful stay home.

But they were out in force on Saturday, full of vim and vinegar and spoiling for a fight. And they were joined by an enthusiastic contingent of newcomers. Some 301 delegates caucused from 9 a.m. until nearly 7 p.m. to elect 34 delegates and 34 alternates to the state GOP convention in Spokane at the end of May.

Fully half raised their hands when asked if this was their first foray into politics. It was a good mix of men and women, young and old, and collars of all hues, including my own brother! Recently moved to Redmond, he went to his first-ever precinct caucus, got elected as a delegate to the county convention, and there he was, as eager as anyone.

Few of us came with McCain first in our hearts, but there is no question who we want answering that White House phone at 3 a.m. I started out supporting former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson because he embodies more of the conservative principles I hold dear. And he bears a resemblance to Dwight Eisenhower – the country could stand a dose of Ike right now. It was not to be. When he wore Gucci loafers at the Iowa State Fair, I had my first "uh-oh" moment.

Present was a strong contingent for Texas Rep. Ron Paul filled with a missionary zeal unseen since the 1988 Pat Robertson Great Awakening. The antipathy of some to the Iraq War - or anything outside the borders of the U.S. - didn't endear them to those of us who support it. But they went out of their way to pledge loyalty to the Republican ticket in the spirit of Ronald Reagan's dictum that someone who supports you eight out of 10 times is your 80 percent friend not your 20 percent enemy.

Spotted on several delegates were buttons calling for a ticket of McCain and Alaska's superstar Republican governor, Sarah Palin, a woman for whom Republicans love to vote. Having an experienced and recent mother (she's to give birth to her fifth child in May) on the ticket would send a strong message about core values.

Since the state GOP convention is in Spokane, the presidential nominee isn't in doubt, and you have to pay your own expenses, you would think that interest in going would be low. Think again.

Ninety-nine candidates vied for the 34 delegate slots, and it took five ballots to elect them. Some of us old hands submitted our names in advance to be on the printed ballot, and 22 of us were recommended for election by district officials. But that didn't prevent grassroots nominees from getting elected or the endorsed from not making the cut.

A young army veteran with several Iraq tours under his belt and a high-and-tight haircut to offset his navy blazer brought the crowd to its feet during his 30-second speech in support of his candidacy. He talked of finishing the job – something, he said, only Republicans seemed to understand. Another young veteran, elected as an alternate, had a similar message.

Then there was the young husband and wife team with three kids. For much of the day, only one was able to be on the floor with their youngest - affectionately nicknamed "The Super Delegate" - while the other was with their other children. Both of them will be going to Spokane.

A mom whose kids are now old enough to be on their own for a couple days beamed with delight when she made it on the third ballot. Then there was the man whose passion is foster children. He not only got himself elected, he successfully sponsored a potential platform resolution calling for reform and greater accountability in the state's foster parent program.

Nary a banker, developer, or country club member was among them.

In between ballots, we debated proposals to be forwarded to the King County GOP's platform committee. Mine, to abolish earmarks, was a hit, as were ones advocating aggressive defense of First Amendment free speech and an interesting one calling on the party to be more pro-active in articulating a pro-life message. The proponent of the measure wasn't advocating overruling Roe v. Wade as much as going into the marketplace of ideas to persuade people of the merits of the pro-life position.

Next stop for all is April's King County GOP Convention. If it is as filled with commitment and excitement, as what I saw Saturday, then we're in far better shape than some realize.

Like the fellow in Dylan Thomas' poem, we have no plans to "go gentle into that good night."


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