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.
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Jay Inslee, left, and Rob McKenna at a debate.

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.

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.

Second, the Seattle P-I ran a front page story trumpeting the accusation of business honcho Sam Stroum, a Lowry supporter, that someone in the Eikenberry campaign offered him a seat on the UW Board of Regents in exchange for a $50,000 donation. But who? The article, written by a reporter who had earlier worked for Lowry's campaign consultant, didn't say, and Stroum refused to answer Eikenberry's phone calls seeking an answer. Eikenberry fired back, but recklessly, attacking not Stroum or the P-I, but the UW Regents as a body, further alienating the business community.

Finally, timing was on Lowry’s side. He ran when a huge Democratic wave swept Bill Clinton and Patty Murray into the nation’s capitol and landed Lowry in the Governor’s office, 52 percent to  48 percent.

1996: Ellen Craswell vs. Gary Locke. King County Executive Gary Locke, a former budget expert in the Legislature, won the Democratic primary, defeating Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and, in a distant third, Jay Inslee, who had lost his seat in Congress after a single term two years previously.

But the real gift to Locke on primary night was Ellen Craswell winning the Republican nomination. Half-a-dozen viable Republicans divided the primary vote, allowing Craswell to barely eke out a narrow victory over legislative leader Dale Foreman from Wenatchee, who would have been a formidable contender, as would've Norm Maleng or attorney Jim Waldo. It was like the 1980 primary that delivered Jim McDermott in reverse.

Ellen entered politics as a fiscally conservative Republican legislator from a Democratic district in Kitsap County. But a cancer scare changed her life and her priorities: the Reagan Republican became a Pat Robertson Republican. Gary Locke came across as a moderate alternative to both Craswell and Mike Lowry, who declined to run for a second term. And it helped that his wife, the attractive, smart and popular KING-5 reporter Mona Lee Locke, became pregnant with their first child during the campaign. The final result wasn't close; 58-42 percent. Gary Locke became America's first Chinese-American Governor, whose immigrant grandfather once worked as a servant in exchange for English lessons. A classic American success story.

2000: Another unwinnable race. Think of it as a Doug Flutie Hail Mary pass with no one in the end zone. After years of telling prospective candidates to study polling, demographic and elections data before committing themselves to a race, I stepped into the Guv's race in March of 2000 dismissing the significance of a poll where 73 percent of the voters believed Washington was on the “right track,” and another showing that 58 percent would support Gary Locke's re-election no matter who ran against him.

Why so popular? The strongest economy in state history had generated a billion dollar surplus. A Republican Legislature made the governor invaluable to his party's base, but also made him more moderate than Lowry, as he signed welfare reform and several tax cuts into law. His implied theme couldn’t have been simpler: “Why change?”

The Republican primary had me facing off against a colorful, outspoken state senator from Moses Lake named Harold Hochstatter. During a duel appearance in Wenatchee, he was asked where he stood on the death penalty. "Right next to the switch," he said.

I won 38 of 39 counties in the primary, but to no avail. Gary’s final winning percentage in November: 58 percent.

2004: Dino Rossi vs. Chris Gregoire. At a time of hyper partisanship nationally, state Sen. Dino Rossi became a political star in Olympia for reaching across the aisle to produce a no-new taxes budget with key Democrats. Together with an inspiring life story — the son of a school teacher who worked his way through college sweeping the floors at the Space Needle — he was the face of the New Republican party. It resulted in the closest race for governor in American history, which Gregoire was awarded on a third count, after losing the initial count, and a recount, to Rossi.

One interesting side note: The 2004 campaign was twice as expensive as any previous run for governor, and the trend has accelerated. In 2000, about $6.5 million was spent on the governor’s race by the candidates, political parties and third parties. In 2004 it passed $15 million. In 2012, more than $45 million.

2008: A rematch. Gregoire’s 133 vote victory was pricey: She spiked state spending by a third in just four years. Rossi argued that her spending spree had put us on an unsustainable path, making a balanced budget impossible regardless of what happened to the economy. Gregoire shot back that Rossi’s claims of a $2.5 billion shortfall were gross exaggerations.

Not exactly. Five months after the election the shortfall was closer to $5 billion. But timing was once again on Gregoire's side: The Obama campaign generated huge crowds and enthusiasm, as he swept to a 16 point victory here over John McCain. Rossi ran 10 points ahead of his party’s presidential candidate, but still fell six points short of taking out the incumbent governor.

2012: Republican Heartbreak. Attorney General Rob McKenna, the best prepared, best organized, best funded Republican in a generation, runs against the guy who ran a distant third for governor 16 years before. Six months before the election, well-placed Democrats were quietly predicting a McKenna victory. Ninety days before the end, some of these same Democrats started hedging. Thirty days out, they started predicting a Jay Inslee victory.

It wasn't because McKenna was running a bad campaign. To the contrary, it was remarkably efficient and disciplined, with the party's top political mind, Randy Pepple, at the helm. But Inslee's early ads were better, particularly the “Bulldozer” biography spot, and the national party's ads for McKenna were head scratchers. I'm still trying to figure out who they were targeting with the five old men kvetching about Inslee at the diner. Was the old codger vote not already in the Republican column?

On Election Day, McKenna's internal polls showed him up, as they had for the previous week and a half. But instead he comes up 3 percentage points short. What happened?

Simply this: More Democrats were excited about voting for Obama than Republicans were about voting for Romney — and it hurt every other Republican down the ballot. A superb Crosscut piece by Chris Vance spelled it out, county by county. A slight voter drop-off in Democrat-heavy Seattle vs. a 5 to 9 point drop-off in Republican leaning counties in central, eastern and western Washington. That's pretty much the way it played out in Ohio and all the other swing states. McKenna’s polls were probably accurate. But if your people don't turn out, it doesn't matter. Jay Inslee told me he didn’t know whether he would win or not on Election Day, though Democratic State Chairman Dwight Pelz believed, based on sophisticated modeling, that Inslee was going to take it.

The outlook for many Republicans is bleak but not dire (they actually gained seats in the state Legislature) and nowhere near as depressing as 1992, the year the Clinton-Lowry-Murray landslide delivered eight of nine congressional seats to Democrats, along with a handsome legislative majority in both state Houses. Just one year later, liberal overreach provoked voters to put a brake on state spending (I-601) and pass America's first "Three Strikes, You're Out" law. A year after that a Republican tidal wave washed away the Democratic majorities in Olympia and reversed the 8-1 Demo majority in Congress to 7-2 Republican (the current configuration is 6-4 Democrat).

So yes, even as Washington’s hue remains blue, Republicans can regroup and regain lost ground. But it sure would help if Jim McDermott wanted to be Governor again…..


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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.