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.
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Inslee at the "Evening with the Stars of Energy Efficiency" Awards Dinner

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.

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.


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