WHY can’t Republicans win a governor’s seat in Washington state? That question has vexed Republicans, political pundits and concerned voters for more than 30 years. This is a bad situation that undermines this state’s system of checks and balances.
The situation in the race for governorship is grim for Republican candidates. With Democrat Jay Inslee’s defeat of Republican Rob McKenna, it will continue what amounts to one-party rule of the governor’s office. Not since 1980, when an almost-forgotten John Spellman won the governorship, has a Republican gained the state’s highest office.
Because of this three-decade dry spell, Washington has gone longer than any other state in the union without having a Republican governor, according to The Weekly Standard.
In certain cases, the Republican Party has added to its problems by fielding rather weak candidates for governor, including Ellen Craswell and John Carlson. Craswell, an evangelical Christian with some extremist views, was badly beaten in 1996 by Gary Locke. Radio talk-show host Carlson, a strong conservative with a very short political résumé, lost to Locke in 2000.
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In rare cases, the party has fielded a strong candidate for governor. One was Dino Rossi, but he lost twice to Chris Gregoire, the first time in 2004 by 133votes in a disputed election. McKenna, the current attorney general, is another. To many like myself, he is an excellent candidate, but not to this state’s overwhelmingly liberal voters.
The problem for this state’s beleaguered Republican Party may have more to do with the party itself than the candidates. Like the national party, the state’s GOP has become more conservative, even reactionary, on cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage. It’s also true that the Democratic Party has become rigidly partisan on these same cultural issues.
This has both polarized statewide politics and given Democrats an overwhelming advantage in their run for office. King County is the main reason, with its densely populated Democratic base. Republicans must win at least 40 percent of the King County vote to win statewide office.
Thus, with few Republicans in key elected positions, and Democrats completely in control, results have proved disastrous. Monopoly control of state offices has made it easier for Democratic politicians to play with taxpayers’ money and has assured that the state teachers unions would not be accountable.
As an example, in 2005 Senate Democrats introduced a $26 billion budget that ignored spending limits in voter-approved Initiative 601. Going forward, because Inslee’s campaign was well financed by state teachers union money, his hands will be tied when it comes to negotiating with them over spending issues.
Many have weighed in on what it would take to right this ship. Secretary of State Sam Reed, one of the few Republicans to win statewide office, says the party must learn to appeal to more centrist voters. Former Republican state chairman Chris Vance said the party needs to know what it takes to win independents and win elections. “It is not enough to appeal to the base,” he asserted.
Those are views of a big-tent party, but won’t solve the problem for Republicans. Republicans must still remember their pragmatic conservative roots based on the fundamental values of hard work and enterprise, a belief in God and fiscal conservatism. Those quite valid ideas still attract people from all walks of life.
The GOP stands a better chance of success with these ideas than simply becoming a pale imitation of the Democratic Party. A well-defined Republican Party will lead to a vigorous two party-system and a stronger state government.
Joe Delmore, a registered Independent, is writing a book on contemporary politics, with an emphasis on the cultural divide between liberals and conservatives in America.