The GOP effort for the governor's office is futile

Washington Republicans have run serious gubernatorial races in the past, but that era is over.

(Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

For any state party, the governorship is the ultimate prize. More resources and attention go into winning that race than any other. This year, Republican leaders will claim that they have a chance to defeat Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, but even they know the truth. This year, for the first time in living memory, there is not a serious effort by Republicans and their allies to win the state’s top job. This, more than anything else, illustrates the GOP’s slide towards irrelevance in Washington state.

In 1984, I graduated from Western Washington University and went to work as the field director on the reelection campaign of Republican U.S. Rep. Rod Chandler in the 8th Congressional District, spanning east King and Pierce counties. I was a small part that year of a big Republican team that included the Reagan reelection campaign, a powerful state party led by Chair Jennifer Dunn and the reelection campaign of Republican Gov. John Spellman. It was a heady experience for an enthusiastic 22-year-old Republican, because it was quite a team.

Read more: How one-party rule came to Washington state

Going into 1984, Republicans had won four of the previous five races for governor. A strong, experienced cadre of political professionals led the GOP, veterans of the campaigns of former Gov. Dan Evans and U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. Spellman had been elected King County Executive three times and had been the Republican nominee for governor in 1976 before being elected in 1980. He was obviously a well-known, experienced, credible candidate. And Republicans had the united financial support of Washington’s business community. In the end, Spellman lost a close race in 1984 to Democrat Booth Gardner, but Republicans ran a serious, well-funded campaign.

No Republican has won since Spellman, but they have often come close. Attorney General Ken Eikenberry got 48% against U.S. Rep. Mike Lowry in 1992. Former state Sen. Dino Rossi was twice declared the winner in 2004 before losing on the third recount. In his 2008 rematch with Christine Gregoire, he received 47% of the vote. Then Attorney General Rob McKenna received 48% in a loss to Inslee in 2012. And four years ago, former Port Commissioner Bill Bryant raised $4 million and got over 45% of the vote. Every race for governor since 1984 has included a serious, credible, relatively well-funded Republican who could lay claim to the legacy of Evans, Gorton, and Spellman. Until now. This year Republicans are on track to get crushed in the state’s top race.

Granted, the huge partisan advantage the Democrats enjoy in Washington, combined with Donald Trump’s anemic approval ratings here, create an atmosphere that the strongest Republican candidate could not overcome. But even in other years that looked bad for the GOP, there was always a serious candidate running a serious campaign. This year, none of the four Republicans running for governor — state Sen. Phil Fortunato from Bonney Lake, Republic Police Chief Loren Culp, former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed and initiative entrepreneur Tim Eyman — has run major races before, and none is raising the kind of money needed to seriously compete.

At this point four years ago, Bryant had raised $1.5 million and had $600,000 cash on hand, and his fundraising was significantly weaker than what Rossi and McKenna had raised previously. None of this year’s Republicans has raised even a third of Bryant’s numbers.

The Republicans who ran serious gubernatorial races in the past were all moderates from King County who understood that to win in Washington state a Republican needs moderate suburban voters, even if that means separating oneself from the national GOP message. This year, all four Republican candidates are running as Trump-style populists, first using the homelessness crisis in Seattle and, lately, Inslee’s stay-at-home orders, to fire up the Trump base, even as every poll shows Trump losing big here and the overwhelming majority of Washingtonians supporting Inslee’s actions during the pandemic.

Eyman in particular personifies the new Trump GOP. Defiant, anti-establishment, anti-intellectual, flamboyant and controversial. Eyman and “conservatives” like him see the Republican Party as a permanent protest movement, rather than a serious center-right governing party. And for all those reasons, he will probably emerge from the 37 names on ballot as Inslee’s opponent.

So how did it come to this?  How did the party of Evans, Gorton, Dunn, Rossi and McKenna become the party of Trump and Eyman?  For decades, Republican elites were able to hold off the populists among their base votes and hold on to significant business community funding. But gradually that struggle was lost.

Republican leaders have always understood that to win here, Republicans had to be a little different. Republicans need to deemphasize abortion and other hot button social issues, while highlighting support for education and environmental protection. Before Trump, all the serious Republican candidates for major office, and most state party chairs, over the past 40 years have tried to create separation from the national GOP message. There were always grassroots activists who wanted the party to move farther to the right, but most of the time the moderate establishment remained the face of the Washington GOP.

During those years, the business community was a reliable and consistent Republican ally. Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, Paccar, Safeco, Pemco and all the major trade associations did not just lean Republican, they were committed to helping elect Republican governors and legislative majorities. The business community poured money into a political action committee, United for Washington, which then poured money into Republican campaigns, and only Republican campaigns. When I defeated a Democratic incumbent for a state House seat in a suburban King County district in 1990, virtually all my funding came from United for Washington and a handful of other big business sources. When I was state party chairman during the 2002 and 2004 elections, I would routinely meet with business lobbyists and walk away with five figure donations to the state party. And in 2012, with the overwhelming support of the business community, McKenna raised $14 million for his gubernatorial campaign.

Republicans had the message, and the money, to compete in a Democratic-leaning state. But it would not last. Tensions grew between the GOP and the business community. Business was always leery of the Republican association with social issues, but the big point of contention was over transportation funding. Republican opposition to gas tax increases and support for Eyman’s initiatives cutting transportation funding dampened business support. In addition, a new generation of business leaders who were not reflexively Republican took over. It did not help that a string of losses made Republicans look like a bad investment. Today, Republicans raise their money from small donors and wealthy individuals and receive very little from the business community. As a result, the GOP is routinely massively outspent by Democrats.

Two events accelerated the Republican slide: the defeat of McKenna and the victory of Trump. For months leading up to the 2012 election, McKenna led Inslee in the polls. Moderate, smart, and well-known statewide, surely McKenna was finally the Republican who could break through. His defeat persuaded many business leaders and Republican establishment bigwigs to throw in the towel. If Rob McKenna can’t win, who can?

And then came Trump’s victory and takeover of the party and its message. The base is now firmly populist and aggressively hostile to the moderates who ran the GOP for so long. The revolution is complete.

There are still smart, capable establishment Republicans in Washington, but they realize running for governor is a lost cause. So they have abandoned that field to the populists, which results in weak, poorly funded candidates at the top of the ticket, alienating suburban moderates and perpetuating the slide towards irrelevance.

This year, for the first time, Republicans will focus their efforts, and what money they have, on defending the seats they still hold in the Legislature and de facto concede the race for governor. Get used to it. This is what one party rule looks like.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

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