What Kirby Wilbur will mean as state GOP chair

The new state Republican chair believes in a big tent, a la Ronald Reagan. And, like Reagan, he tends to be underestimated.

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Kirby Wilbur, the new Washington state GOP chair, has appeared occasionally on C-SPAN.

The new state Republican chair believes in a big tent, a la Ronald Reagan. And, like Reagan, he tends to be underestimated.

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.  

But most important is that Wilbur strongly adheres to the Big Tent philosophy of Republicanism, which believes that you can’t win a legislative majority by running a Whitman County conservative in Kirkland and vice-versa.  He often paraphrases Ronald Reagan (he’s on the board of the foundation that saved and preserved the Reagan Ranch near Santa Barbara) that someone who agrees with him 80 percent of the time is not his enemy. A devout pro-lifer, Wilbur nevertheless has supported many pro-choice Republicans over the years.

Had he lived in Delaware last year, he would have voted for moderately liberal Republican Mike Castle over Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell in the U.S. Senate primary. In short, he is politically street smart and pragmatic. But unlike almost every Democrat in the city of Seattle, he also understands the difference between the Tea Party Movement and the Black Helicopter crowd.    

His first challenge will be to put people at ease who weren’t at ease with the format of KVI radio.  How do you square that with assembling winning coalitions in a blue state like Washington? Simple. You understand that you’ve got a different customer base.  Wilbur on KVI spoke to self-described conservatives.  Wilbur as party leader speaks to everyone who considers himself or herself a Republican, plus everyone else you need to win a majority.   You get there, he says, with a “message and mechanics.”

Let’s add a third “m”:  Manna, principally from the business community, which has no trouble re-directing its funds to independent groups if it feels the party isn’t producing good value for the dollar.  Wilbur should know:  he ran one such successful group, Americans for Prosperity, last year, which attracted a few headlines recently for missing some Public Disclosure filing deadlines. That mess is still being cleaned up.  Just as Reagan learned from Goldwater’s defeat, Wilbur learned from Ellen Craswell’s in 1996.  In fact, four years before, Wilbur was pilloried himself as a “liberal” at the infamous ideological meltdown at the 1992 State GOP convention, which produced a memorable headline in the Bellevue Journal-American: “Republicans pass ‘Nutcase’ Platform.” 

Political insiders have also been talking about what Wilbur’s election means to Attorney General and almost certain gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, who campaigned for Esser.  I doubt it will matter at all.  McKenna’s support wasn’t anti-Wilbur (they’ve been allies and acquaintances for years).  It’s rooted in the AG’s long friendship with Esser. They both grew up in Bellevue and crossed paths at the UW.

Esser served on McKenna’s staff when he was on the King County Council (a detail many people have forgotten).  The Attorney General was simply showing loyalty to a longtime friend.  Will McKenna be challenged from the right in a primary?  Not from anyone who can beat him. Besides, the only credible name being talked about as a primary challenger to McKenna is popular Port Commissioner Bill Bryant, another rising star, who is a step to McKenna’s left with a fraction of his statewide name ID. 

Wilbur may also benefit from one other Reaganite trait: Too many people underestimate him. Kirby came of age during the Reagan era, and reflects the Gipper’s upbeat but principled conservatism that managed to unite a party and create a governing majority.  Reagan was also the last Republican presidential candidate to win Washington. He did it twice.  Kirby Wilbur was there both times and has been ever since.      

(Editor's note: Writer John Carlson points out that he worked with Wilbur for more than 15 years at KVI.)


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Carlson

John Carlson

John Carlson is a contributing columnist covering politics in Seattle and Washington state.