With the right ideas, Washington state Republicans can win again

Property tax relief and tougher drunk driving laws can help reinvigorate the local right.

Ronald Reagan tie

If Republicans can't get elected in Olympia, they should take their ideas straight to the people, writes John Carlson. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Last month, I argued that Jay Inslee would be more vulnerable running for a third term than when he ran for his second. 

No one disputed that claim. But almost everyone implied it was irrelevant by wondering aloud who the Republicans might run to oppose him. At this point, I think, Inslee would actually be more vulnerable to a fellow Democrat than any Republican. 

Stuart Elway’s recent poll in Crosscut spotlighted two fascinating and discernable trends. First, the gap between self-identified (we don’t formally register by party in Washington) Democrats and Republicans had widened to 20 points: 41% to 21%. That’s statewide, not just in the Puget Sound area.

The second is that Democrats now outnumber independents. Washington voters have been famous throughout history for splitting their tickets and voting for the candidate, not the party. In 1976, for example, they gave their votes to Republican Gerald Ford for president while reelecting Democrat Henry “Scoop” Jackson to the Senate, with over 70% of the vote. Today, growing numbers of independents who leaned liberal feel comfortable signing up for the Democrats, in part because they want to play on the team opposing Donald Trump, the personification of the Grand Old Party.

In both 2016 and 2018, several local incumbent Republicans and candidates responded to this trend by publicly distancing themselves from Trump. Some even announced they wouldn’t vote for him. No matter. The “reasonable Republicans” in the suburbs around Seattle were the ones who lost, leaving King County without any Republican legislator in either chamber whose district lies entirely inside the county borders. 

Losing suburbs outside some major cities throughout America was the price the Republican Party paid for becoming more popular in working-class areas that used to prefer Democrats in states like Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin. 

So, when Inslee announced plans to run again, no major Republican bothered to announce an interest in running against him, other than Dave Reichert, who entertained the idea only for a few days. The Republicans won’t come close to capturing either chamber of the legislature, where they are down 28-21 in the Senate and 57-41 in the House. It’s not clear whether they will field a serious candidate in six of Washington’s nine statewide offices. 

So now what? Conservatives have but a single card to play. They must focus on ideas before candidates.

On social issues, including abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana, the electorate tilts left. On fiscal issues, like the income tax, supermajorities to raise taxes, higher energy taxes (even for desirable goals like climate change), and expanding government programs, the voters veer right. And on cultural issues, like fighting crime and opposing racial preferences in college admissions and government hiring, the voters also lean rightward.

As an institution, the Legislature tends to blur these edges by smothering right-of-center ideas that appeal across party lines. Republicans should transcend Olympia by taking their case directly to the voters, as they did, for instance, in the ’90s with “Three Strikes, You’re Out,” a law I co-authored. It originally was proposed as legislation but never got so much as a hearing, which frustrated many of us. But eventually we managed to qualify it as an initiative, where it passed with 76% of the vote.

For years, bills authorizing the state auditor to conduct performance audits of state agencies were always bottled up and never came close to passing. But when Tim Eyman got I-900 qualified to allow the auditor to actually measure how well government programs worked, it passed by 13 points.

Finally, when I-200, the measure aimed at ending the use of race-based affirmative action, was introduced as a bill by Rep. Scott Smith from Pierce County, it too was buried in committee. But when it appeared on the ballot as an initiative (a campaign I led), it carried with almost 59% of the vote, despite being strongly outspent by the opponents’ campaign. 

What would a direct-to-the-voter agenda look like? Here are two ideas, starting with property tax relief.

You can’t have affordable housing without affordable property taxes. But rising valuations and the collective burden of levies are pressing down hard on homeowners throughout King and parts of Kitsap, Snohomish, Pierce and Thurston counties. Seniors with middle-class but fixed incomes are particularly hard hit. Harder still is the drag on aspiring homeowners. Phasing down the state portion of the property tax can help, just as it helped many families when double-digit annual increases in state college tuition were frozen by the Legislature, then gradually whittled down. 

The second idea engages the cultural front: Republicans should throw some muscle into Washington’s drunk (and drugged) driving laws. Until last year a drunken driver wouldn’t see felony charges until his fifth DUI. Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley managed to get it reduced to four, provided they all happened within a 10-year period. When he tried to widen that period to 15 years, he was rebuffed.

Enough. Make a third DUI within 20 years a felony charge, and require deferred prosecutions of driving under the influence to count as DUIs upon a subsequent conviction. It is ridiculous to go easy on people who drive drunk with two previous DUIs on their record. The streets would be safer and hundreds of drunks would suddenly have a very good reason to seek treatment.

The calculus is simple. Pick issues that unite at least 80% of Republicans, 60% of independents and 30% or more of Democrats. Is it something voters truly care about? Can you raise money or volunteers to qualify it for the ballot? If so, you’re home. And good policy is good politics. If Democratic legislators in swing districts oppose popular conservative initiatives, they risk angering their constituents, making them more vulnerable in the general election. If they support these initiatives, they’ll nettle party activists, opening the door for a primary challenge. 

The initiative process exists for a reason. Throughout history, landmark legislation, left, right or in between, has been bottled up in the political process only to have the people make it law directly. If you can’t change the politicians sent by the people to Olympia, take your ideas to the people themselves.

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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.