How Republican Kim Wyman keeps winning in blue Washington state

The secretary of state’s latest victory will make her the only statewide GOP official on the West Coast, outside of Alaska.

Kim Wyman with Capitol steps and columns in background

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman outside the Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia on Nov. 10, 2020. Wyman's latest victory will make her the only Republican statewide elected official in Washington, and on the West Coast, outside of Alaska. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Eight years ago, Kim Wyman wanted to be the first county auditor in Washington state to issue a same-sex marriage license. 

Then the auditor in Thurston County, Wyman created a plan to give 10 same-sex couples their marriage licenses right as Washington’s same sex marriage law went into effect — at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 6, 2012.

Now Washington’s secretary of state, Wyman, a Republican, calls issuing those first same-sex marriage licenses a highlight of her career. “It’s something I’m really proud of,” said Wyman, 58, who last week was elected to a third term.

Wyman’s early support of LGTBQ couples is just one of the ways she has shown her independence from the national Republican Party, whose platform still opposes same-sex marriage. This year, as Washington’s chief elections official, Wyman also has repeatedly countered President Donald Trump’s unsupported claims that mail-in voting is rife with fraud. She has written op-eds and appeared frequently in national media outlets to defend voting by mail, a system Washington has employed statewide since 2011. 

Wyman’s success has made her a rarity on the West Coast — a Republican who can actually win statewide races. Last week, she defeated Democratic state Rep. Gael Tarleton, fending off a fierce Democratic challenge in a state that has gone blue in the past nine presidential elections. Come January, Wyman will be the only Republican statewide elected official on the West Coast south of Alaska.

It’s a lonely club, but one Wyman knows well. When she was first elected in 2012, Wyman enjoyed the same distinction. At the time, no other Republicans occupied statewide elected office in California, Oregon, Washington or Hawaii. 

During her second term, Wyman had more GOP company, as Washington’s state treasurer and Oregon’s secretary of state also were Republicans. But this month, Washington’s Republican state treasurer, Duane Davidson, lost his re-election bid, while a Democrat won the race to succeed Oregon’s GOP secretary of state. 

Why has Wyman proved so resilient, even as Washington state and the region trends blue? Part of the reason may be tied to the office she holds. Republicans have won the secretary of state’s office in Washington every year since 1964. 

But Wyman also has been able to successfully distinguish herself from Trump, who is unpopular in Washington state. Although her Democratic opponents have tried to tie her to the president, Wyman has significantly outperformed Trump among Washington state voters. This year, she bested him by 15 percentage points, winning 53.5% of the statewide vote to Trump’s 38.5%. 

Those numbers have some thinking about Wyman as a potential candidate for governor — especially after this year’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, Loren Culp, garnered only 43% of the statewide vote. 

Wyman, by contrast, has won statewide three times now, each time by persuading Democrats to cross over and vote for her.

“I think she’s the strongest of the Republican contenders for governor,” said Michael Charles, a Democratic political consultant based in Seattle. While winning would be difficult for any Republican, “In my opinion, her having won statewide three times, that’s a strength, undoubtedly," he said.

Wyman, for her part, said she is focused on the job she holds right now. She’s spent 27 years administering elections — both as secretary of state and as Thurston County’s elections manager and auditor — and says she loves the work.

Moreover, she’s trying to take a moment to enjoy her latest victory, she said. “I’m not really thinking too much about my political future right now.” Wyman said Monday.

“It’s the same thing as asking a woman who just gave birth in the delivery room when she’s thinking about having her next kid,” she added.

In other words: ask again later.

Kim Wyman just won a third term as secretary of state, Washington's chief elections official. Her success in winning statewide office has some considering her as a potential candidate for governor. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Competence as a campaign strategy

In each of her reelection campaigns, Wyman has had something working in her favor: Washington’s election system, which she oversees, is widely regarded as one of the best in the nation.

Election officials from around the country turned to Wyman for advice this year on how to scale up mail-in voting, which other U.S. states have leaned on during the pandemic. Washington has also been ahead of the curve when it comes to adopting security measures to prevent fraud and cyberattacks, election experts say.

All of that put Democrats in a bit of a tough position this year. To counter the president’s unfounded claims that mail-in voting would lead to a rigged or unfair election, they frequently defended Washington’s mail-in system as a good one. In the process, however, they simultaneously gave Wyman’s reputation a boost.

“The most public-facing function of her office is the one that seems to be performing at a higher level than anywhere else in the United States,” Charles said. 

Without doing “really hard mental gymnastics,” he said, “it is hard to argue she isn’t doing a good job.” 

While Trump and other Republicans this week have proclaimed fraud and election malfeasance to dispute that Trump has lost the presidential race, Wyman said she sees no evidence of fraud or vote rigging.

On Friday, a day before The Associated Press projected Democrat Joe Biden as the winner, Wyman was blunt in her assessment of the incumbent president. 

“This is just to cast doubt and try to explain away why he didn’t win,” Wyman said of Trump. “Our country right now is in a fragile place, and we don’t need the top elected official in the country undermining the integrity of our election system.”

Alex Hays, a Republican political consultant, said Wyman’s willingness to stand up to party leaders and “defend the facts” when it comes to mail-in voting are proof that she values competent performance in office above partisanship. That’s part of how Wyman repeatedly persuades Democratic-leaning voters to support her, despite her party affiliation, he said.

“I think Kim can definitely appeal to voters in the middle,” Hays said. “She has solidly won swing voters, even in the most contentious of years.”

Cornell Clayton, the director of Washington State University's Thomas Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service, said Wyman is one of a long line of secretaries of state who have seen their office as essentially a nonpartisan one. Before her, Republican secretaries of state Ralph Munro and Sam Reed also strove to act “in a neutral, nonpartisan, competent way,” he said.

Wyman’s regular appearances on national TV this year have driven that message home, he said.

“She’s out there on national television disagreeing with Donald Trump,” Clayton said. “That’s one of the things that signaled she sees her role as nonpartisan, as being a neutrally competent administrator.” 

But those frequent appearances have also served a dual purpose during campaign season, said Heather Weiner, a Democratic political consultant.

“Right around election time, she gets a lot of free airplay, so people are hearing her name as an expert — reporters are talking to her about what the election is going to be like,” said Weiner, who assisted the campaign of Democrat Tina Podlodowski, Wyman's 2016 challenger. “...It’s free advertising.” 

During this year’s election, Tarleton, Wyman’s Democratic opponent, disputed Wyman’s characterization of herself as a nonpartisan figure. Tarleton noted that over the years, Wyman had expressed concerns about some proposals that aimed to expand access to voting, including legislation to implement same-day voter registration. Wyman’s opponents have also criticized her for saying at one point that she opposed a 2012 version of the state Voting Rights Act, a proposal that aimed to increase minority representation in government. 

In both cases, Wyman said she had technical concerns about how the measures would be implemented. In the case of the state Voting Rights Act, she directed her office to work with the bill sponsors to refine the measure. It ultimately passed in 2018, with Wyman’s office testifying in support.

In any case, during her TV appearances and on the campaign trail, people seem to find Wyman quite likeable, said Shasti Conrad, who chairs the King County Democrats. That, too, makes the Republican secretary of state more difficult to beat. 

“We kept hearing, ‘she’s a nice lady, she’s a nice lady!’ over and over again,” Conrad said. “She has a persona of not being a slash-and-burn Republican.” 

Secretary of State Kim Wyman, 58, has been a vocal advocate for voting by mail this year. In national media interviews, she has frequently defended Washington system of mail-in voting as safe and secure, countering President Donald Trump's unsupported allegations that mail-in voting leads to rampant fraud. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut) 

Moving up the ladder

Clayton, the director of WSU’s Foley Institute, characterized Wyman’s brand of Republicanism as “about as moderate as they come.” But he said it still may be difficult for her to transfer her statewide success as secretary of state to a more overtly partisan position, like that of governor.

“I don’t think it would transfer over,” Clayton said of Wyman’s winning streak as secretary of state. “I think it works in that office because the expectation of that office is that it is not engaged in substantive politics.”

In an interview this week, Wyman declined to discuss her views on several hot-button issues, including abortion and climate change. She said she tries to remain publicly neutral on most social issues because they often are the subject of statewide ballot measures. Since her office is involved in certifying signatures and determining the validity of initiative petitions, maintaining neutrality is important to her so people don’t think she is being unfair to one side or the other based on her personal political views.

As a private individual, however, she does support same-sex marriage and equal rights for LGBTQ individuals. “I have family members, close family members, who are members of the LGBT community,” Wyman said this week. “I try not to weigh in on those things either way, but from a personal standpoint … of course I want to support them.”

That’s one reason why, after Washington voters approved same-sex marriage at the ballot box, Wyman held a lottery to pick 10 couples who would receive their marriage license as soon as the new law took effect. Wyman and her staff in Thurston County threw those couples a middle-of-the-night party to commemorate their getting marriage licenses. Other couples were able to get their licenses a few hours later, once the Thurston County Auditor’s Office officially opened later that morning.

“We had people in the community who were in committed relationships who had been together for years, and in many cases, decades,” Wyman said. “And for the first time in their lives, they were able to legally and in every way cement their commitment to each other. That was really fun to be a part of.”

Wyman herself has been married for 32 years. She and her husband, John, have two adult children. 

She’s a colon cancer survivor, having received her last treatment more than three years ago. If she gets to five years, she’s considered “cured,” she said.

During her next term, she wants to continue refining Washington’s cybersecurity around elections, as well as improve the new statewide voter registration database, VoteWA, which her office rolled out last year. She also wants to stay long enough to see the completion of a new state library and archives building. The current State Archives Building is not only too small, but in such a state of disrepair that it puts important historical documents at risk.

Besides overseeing elections, the Secretary of State’s Office manages the state’s archives and the registration of corporations. 

In the long term, Wyman also would like to see the office become formally nonpartisan, a step she thinks will further increase the trust people have in it and the state’s voting systems.

For now, Wyman plans to mainly go back to what she has done for the past 27 years: administering elections. 

While she’s gotten used to being called a RINO, or “Republican in name only,” Wyman said she doesn’t have any plans to leave the GOP anytime soon.

She said she wants to see the party return to some of the principles that motivated her to become a Republican 40 years ago, when she looked up to Ronald Reagan as a young woman in Southern California.

Those include supporting free markets and a capitalistic society, but also social safety net programs, she said.

She wants to employ what she called “the Gandhi principle” — “be the change you want to see” — to try to make her party more like the one that inspired her in 1980. 

“It’s those Republican principles that I wish we would get back to,” she said.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.