Hot Button: Will Rossi Resuscitate the state GOP?

While many wonder if Dino Rossi is the Grand Old Party pooper, state Republicans are counting on him

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State Republicans to watch

Rob McKenna: Washington’s attorney general, McKenna is very smart and very ambitious. He’s a plainspoken policy wonk, has a base of support in the Democrats’ stronghold of King County, and has already won statewide office. He is the early favorite to win the 2012 governor’s race.

Reagan Dunn:
A King County Council member, Dunn has emerged as the leading opposition voice on a body that is narrowly controlled by Democrats. He rails against tax increases, but is not a hard-line ideologue. He’ll likely run for attorney general in 2012—or perhaps the 8th District congressional seat once held by his mother, the late Jennifer Dunn.

Dave Reichert:
A congressman representing Seattle’s eastern suburbs, Reichert keeps winning in the 8th District despite its increasingly Democratic leanings. Word is he is restless in D.C. and would be a strong candidate for King County executive in 2012, having previously served as county sheriff.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers:
She represents eastern Washington in Congress, is a youthful 41 and a rising star in the national party. Look for the Republicans to press her to challenge Senator Maria Cantwell in 2012. She is virtually unknown west of the Cascades, though, which could hurt her.

Casual political observers could be forgiven for thinking Dino Rossi
is the only Republican in Washington state. Having now sought statewide office three times in the past six years, Rossi has been the GOP’s go-to guy since Bob Melvin was manager of the Seattle Mariners. That was at least five managers—and more than 500 losses—ago. Nevertheless, many Republicans cheered when the former state senator from Sammamish decided to challenge U.S. Senator Patty Murray, believing he gives the party its best shot to make a stunning breakthrough in 2010.

Rossi, who turns 51 on October 15, lost races for governor to Democrat Christine Gregoire in 2004 and 2008 (the 2004 election was contested and excruciatingly close). So in a year in which Democrats nationwide fear anti-incumbent sentiment will end their control of the U.S. House or Senate, or both, is there really nobody else out there besides Rossi who can credibly take on Murray, the three-term incumbent?

Not at the moment. The state’s most prominent Republican officeholder, Attorney General Rob McKenna, is busy positioning himself for a 2012 run at the governor’s mansion. Tea Party favorite Clint Didier made some noise leading up to the August primary—he even had Sarah Palin’s endorsement—but he stumbled on his own antigovernment rhetoric, which seemed to contradict the reality that, as an eastern Washington farmer, he had received tens of thousands of dollars in federal aid. Also, the GOP has suffered deep losses in the state Legislature the past several years, damaging its ability to recruit candidates who would play well in the voter-rich Seattle metro area.

Consider, too, that Washingtonians haven’t sent a Republican to the governor’s mansion since John Spellman lost to Booth Gardner in 1984; the state hasn’t had a Republican U.S. senator since Slade Gorton lost to Maria Cantwell in 2000; six of the state’s nine congressional representatives are Democrats; Democrats took control of the state House of Representatives in 2002 and now enjoy a 61-37 majority, and Democrats have controlled the state Senate since 2004, boasting a current upper-chamber advantage of 31 to 18. 

Still, Republicans aren’t dreaming the impossible dream: Things haven’t been going exceedingly well for local Democrats lately, either. It’s hard to find a constituency the party hasn’t angered—from college students to small-business owners to anyone who enjoys a beer or two after work. Democrats had to carve $12 billion from the state budget over the past three years, which they accomplished partly by raising taxes on soda, beer and candy, and by making deep cuts in education and services for the needy and the sick. Business owners howl about the tax increases and complain that Democratic leaders have failed to rein in public payrolls for union workers. Unions are equally upset, grousing that their normal allies are too focused on maintaining their political majority and have blocked many of their key initiatives. The Washington State Labor Council has gone so far as to raise about $900,000 to oppose Democrats the unions don’t like.

 With Democrats so unpopular, how can the Republicans have fared so poorly in recent elections? And do they have any chance of improving their station come November 2?

Chris Vance, a former Republican state party chairman and now a public affairs consultant, says a fundamental shift in how everyday people align themselves is partly to blame for the Grand Old Party’s poor showings.

"Politics used to be about economics,” Vance says. “If you were rich, college educated, a professional or a business owner or manager, you tended to be a Republican. If you were less affluent, less well educated, worked in a factory and were a member of a union, you tended to be a Democrat.” In the past 25 years or so, that all changed.

“Politics has become cultural. People who wave the flag, listen to country music, drive pickup trucks—they tend to vote Republican,” Vance says, noting that people who are more highly educated and not terribly religious vote for Democrats.

These are broad-brush generalizations, of course, but look around the metropolitan area, where the heaviest concentration of voters is. You don’t see many people blaring Kenny Chesney’s greatest hits out of their Ford F-350s. You do see a lot of tech workers with Ph.D.’s, M.B.A.’s and PDAs who wouldn’t be able to find a church if you offered them a hundred free iPhone apps. Therein lies the problem for Republicans, Vance says—a situation that was compounded by the last occupant of the White House.
 
“They hated George W. Bush and they see themselves culturally at odds with people in the South,” says Vance, referring to King County voters. And as President Bush grew more unpopular in his second term, the GOP’s Evergreen State goose was slowly cooked. Fact is, Rossi fared better in Washington state than either President Bush in 2004 or Senator John McCain in 2008. But he got still got Bushwhacked, Vance believes. 

Maybe so, but local Democrats say state Republicans have a lot more than George Bush to blame for their problems. “They’re a far-right party in a moderate Democratic state. That’s their biggest problem,” says Sandeep Kaushik, a Democratic consultant from Seattle. “The Republican Party in Washington state holds the same views as the Republican Party in Mississippi.”

Kaushik says the state Republican Party—which he describes as socially conservative, antichoice on abortion, hostile to gay civil rights—simply runs to the right of most Washington residents. He traces the state GOP’s problems to 1988, when uberconservative candidate Pat Robertson won the state Republican Party’s presidential caucuses. “That was a signal of a shift away from moderation that has only accelerated,” Kaushik says.

In addition, Republicans have recently ceded Seattle’s Eastside suburbs to Democratic state lawmakers. Fred Jarrett, now King County’s deputy executive, jumped from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party as a state representative in 2007 and was later elected state senator from Mercer Island as a Democrat. Jarrett’s defection left Republicans without any representatives from an area they used to dominate. When he left his old party, Jarrett said at the time that his fiscally conservative but socially progressive views on issues such as abortion and the environment left him no choice but to become a Democrat. Adhering to the GOP party line on those issues would have made him unelectable, he said.

Democrats believe the Republican Party’s leadership in Olympia—state Representative Richard DeBolt from Chehalis and Senator Mike Hewitt from Walla Walla—is out of touch with the day-to-day concerns of people who live in the cities and suburbs. Kaushik thinks the Republican Party is doing itself a disservice, because Washington voters are not especially partisan and would vote for a Republican with broad appeal.
 
“There’s room for a moderate Republican in this state,” Kaushik says, “but there’s no room for moderates in the state Republican Party.” 

Enter Rob McKenna. The former King County Council member has been the Republicans’ best hope of capturing an office like governor or U.S. senator since he was elected attorney general in 2004. An amiable policy wonk from Bellevue, McKenna is the early favorite to win the governor’s race in 2012 and break a Republican losing streak that stretches back more than 25 years.

But Democrats believe McKenna erred mightily by publicly dissing the governor and joining more than a dozen other Republican attorneys general in fighting President Barack Obama’s recently passed national health care overhaul. McKenna says forcing people to buy private insurance—as the new law does—is unconstitutional. Democrats say he was trying to shore up his right flank, and they’ll use that flank to beat him over the head come 2012.

“McKenna’s smart and he’s skilled and he’s going to be a difficult opponent,” Kaushik says. “But he has the same problem every Republican does. He has a very restive Tea Party base that’s going to force him to the right. That’s what we saw with [his position on] health care reform.”

Vance and other Republicans, meanwhile, say state Democrats are the ones who should be worried—this fall and beyond. Vance believes 2010 is looking a lot like 1994, when voter discontent swept Democrats out of power nationally and locally. Republicans believe voters, fed up with deficits and public-sector spending, will take their anger out on the party that runs the state Legislature and the U.S. Congress.

“If this really is 1994 again, Dino will beat Patty Murray comfortably and the Republicans will maybe take the majority in both houses of the Legislature,” says Vance, who believes the state GOP has recruited good candidates for many state legislative races. Luke Esser, the current state Republican Party chairman, agrees, and he ticks off a half-dozen Puget Sound–area legislative districts where he thinks Republicans can topple Democratic incumbents.

Esser says that when Rossi got into the Senate race, it raised the national profile of the contest. That helped the party bring in money and provided an assist to other GOP candidates, including those running for the state Legislature.

In Rossi, the GOP thinks it has finally found the right person to take out the state’s most high-profile Democrat. “Polls show that we’ve got a great shot at it. Patty Murray is very, very vulnerable,” Esser says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for Republicans, our best on a Senate level in a long, long time.”
 And Vance sees reasons for optimism in 2012, when he thinks Republicans will build on progress they’ll make in November. “[King County Council member] Reagan Dunn is working very hard building a political base statewide,” Vance says. “The conventional wisdom is McKenna runs for governor [in 2012] and Dunn runs for attorney general. And I think you’re seeing a new crop of Republican legislators who are potential rising stars.” 

 Democrats aren’t buying it. To succeed, Republicans need a message most Washingtonians can relate to, Kaushik says. On issues from abortion to the economy, Republicans aren’t speaking the same language as most people in the Seattle metropolitan area—the very people the GOP needs to win back to be relevant again.

“The Republicans’ economic agenda too often equates to protecting the privileges and advantages of the rich,” Kaushik says. “Washington state has the highest minimum wage in the nation [at $8.55 per hour] because of a voter-approved initiative. The Republican Party, from Dino Rossi on down, thinks the minimum wage in Washington is too high and needs to be reduced. Republicans are still vulnerable because of their elitist support for the wealthy.”

Still, polls suggest that Rossi does have a chance against Murray. If the erstwhile “mom in tennis shoes” wins a fourth term and serves the full six years, she will have the third-longest tenure of all who have served as U.S. senators from Washington, behind only Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson. But if Rossi is smiling come Nov. 3, Republicans believe it will be the start of their return to relevance after years of futility, and hard-won validation of their antitax, antigovernment strategy. 

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