Washington's Republicans have to hope for a change in their party

Inside Politics: The demographics tell a story that party leaders could learn from. But will they?
Crosscut archive image.

Rob McKenna

Inside Politics: The demographics tell a story that party leaders could learn from. But will they?

All the numbers are in. Time for one last look at election 2012 and, more importantly, a look ahead at the immediate future of politics nationally and in Washington state. As the GOP seeks to reset itself it should actually look to the early days of the George W. Bush administration for guidance.

In terms of partisan politics, the election produced no real surprises. Republicans gained a net of one seat each in the state House and Senate. Sen. Maria Cantwell and all the congressional incumbents of both parties cruised to reelection. Democrats easily held the seat Norm Dicks vacated. Republicans have to be disappointed that they didn’t win the new 1st Congressional District, or at least come closer, but the real downer for the GOP was once again failing to win a major statewide race. Republicans have now failed to win a Senate race since 1994, and have failed to win a gubernatorial race since 1980.

Republican Rob McKenna won 10 percent of the Democratic vote, and 97 percent of the Republicans. He won among independents 53 percent to 47 percent. He captured the votes of 13 percent of those who voted for Barack Obama, and 18 percent of those who voted for Maria Cantwell. And yet he lost, 51.5 to 48.5 percent. Why?

Objectively, Democrat Jay Inslee defeated McKenna for two reasons:

1. McKenna lost King County 62 percent to 38 percent. Take away King County, and McKenna wins the election 53 percent to 47 percent. In fact, take away just the 7th congressional district (Seattle) and McKenna is elected by 88,000 votes. To win, a Republican must limit the damage in King County, and capture 40 percent of the vote.

2. Turnout was down overall, but not in King County. Compared to 2008, turnout was up by 1 percent in Walla Walla county and virtually unchanged in King County (83.9 percent to 83.6 percent). In the other 37 counties turnout was down, and, in many areas, down dramatically. As I wrote just after the election, turnout helped create an electorate that was even more Democratic than in 2008. 

McKenna didn’t do well enough in King County, and there weren’t enough Republican votes cast in the rest of the state do to make up the difference.

Subjectively, many theories are advanced after every election. In this case, I’m not sure there is anything Team McKenna could have done to change the outcome. Republicans just don’t win major statewide elections in blue states in Democratic years.

Politics was once about economics. Put very simply, rich people, professionals, owners and managers were Republicans, while poor people and blue collar workers were Democrats. Now politics in America is about race and culture. White voters — including white women — lean Republican. Non-white voters are overwhelming Democratic. Those who attend church weekly are strongly Republican; those who say they never attend church are strongly Democratic, according to exit polls nationally and in Washington state.

America is changing, both in terms of attitudes and demographics. The internet has been full of articles on this subject since the election, but the best concise summary of the situation I have seen comes from Moore Information, a Republican pollster in Portland. Moore writes:

But the math behind the inexorable drop in white voters as a percentage of the population is a truth that Republicans cannot deny. All things being equal, George Bush would not have been elected in 2000 with an electorate that looked like 2012. And Mitt Romney would have won in 2012 with an electorate that looked like 2000. The makeup of America is changing and in order for Republicans to remain relevant they need to recognize this hard reality.

Smart Republican leaders have seen this change coming for a long time. Eleven years ago I attended my first Republican National Committee meeting as the chairman of the Washington State Republican Party The theme of that meeting was how the GOP needed to change to meet the needs of a changing America. The Bush team saw the demographic trends that are becoming manifest now, and they knew they had to lead the party in a different direction. The emphasis was on tax cuts to spur growth, education reform and even immigration reform. The tone was one of bipartisan compromise, greater diversity and “compassionate conservatism.”  Remember George W. Bush working with Ted Kennedy? 

Then came 9/11 and the entire direction of the Bush presidency changed. The GOP largely forgot about the need to diversify its message and its messengers; there was a war to be won. The election of Barack Obama and the battle over health care created the Tea Party and today’s harsh, unyielding tone of opposition.

Republicans hardly find themselves a helpless minority after the 2012 election. The GOP controls the U.S. House, a majority of Governors and enough seats in the US Senate to block any bill they oppose. Here at home, Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, but Republicans are within six seats of a majority in the House, and effectively control the state Senate in collaboration with two Democratic renegades. Still, one gets a sense that the tide of history is moving away from Republicans.  How does the GOP change that?

Politics are driven by events. That is why predicting the future is so difficult. It is impossible to know what is going happen that will dramatically affect the 2014 and 2016 elections. We can, however, extrapolate based on today’s circumstances.

For the next three years, until a new crop of presidential candidates take the stage, the GOP will be defined by the congressional leadership. Those leaders need to get the GOP back to where it was before 9/11. They need to let go of the past and swallow the frustration of losing the last two presidential elections.

Republicans need to make it clear they are willing to negotiate and compromise on budgets and deficits. Embrace the principals of the Simpson-Bowles report. Offer specific changes to the health care law and work with the president to find compromise. And once and for all, abandon the insane idea that we can or should round up and deport millions of immigrants, and instead embrace comprehensive immigration reform. Without abandoning its core economic principals, Republicans need show themselves to be reasonable people, offering realistic solutions, who are willing to negotiate in good faith. 

Here at home, Republicans need to focus on education and be patient. The state Supreme Court has ordered the state to once and for all fully fund basic education without relying on levy dollars. Republican legislators need to embrace this directive, as Rob McKenna did. Republicans should continue to make education reform, and education funding, the centerpiece of their message.

The 2014 election will be quiet, with no statewide races. The GOP should get to work now recruiting a candidate to run against freshman Rep. Suzan Del Bene in the 1st Congressional District. Republican Rob McKenna won the 1st with 52 percent of the vote. In a mid-term election, with the right candidate, the 1st is a district Republicans can win. Republicans will also have a real chance to win outright control of the state Senate in 2014.

The 2016 election is so far away it is impossible to know what the political landscape will look like.  Republicans will need candidates for governor and U.S. senator. To have a chance, those candidates — whoever they are — will have to dramatically and explicitly differentiate themselves from the national Republican image and message, unless events, or national Republican leaders and candidates, have altered the current views of the two parties.

To be a Republican on the West Coast (or a Democrat in the South) is to live with the frustration of not controlling your own destiny. There is nothing Rob McKenna could do or say that was going to overcome the image of the GOP created by national events and the party’s national leaders.

Blue state Republicans need to hope those leaders now see that demography is destiny. Republicans need to recapture the moderate, solutions-oriented message and tone that was lost when the war on terror swallowed the Bush domestic agenda. To do otherwise is to rely on an ever shrinking base, and the cynical hope that millions of Americans won’t exercise their right to vote. Hardly appropriate for the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, and a very popular Governor of Texas who came into the White House with such high hopes.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

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