When former Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn died this week, she left behind a long line of protégés and Republican Party leaders who...

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When former Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn died this week, she left behind a long line of protégés and Republican Party leaders who think her way may be the best way back to power.

Rep. Dunn’s mild-mannered, suburban brand of Republicanism inspired many of the people who today are the face of the state GOP, including state GOP Chairman Luke Esser, Attorney General Rob McKenna and former state Sen. Dino Rossi.

Rep. Dunn, who represented Washington’s 8th Congressional District for 12 years, died early Wednesday after suffering a blood clot in her lung over the holiday weekend at her home in Alexandria, Va. She was 66.

“It’s like a whole generation of Republicans have lost their mom,” said Brett Bader, a Republican consultant from Bellevue. “She was that giant of a figure.”

Politics was Rep. Dunn’s life. She even named one of her sons Reagan after the California governor who was not yet president.

“We’re just trying to pull ourselves together,” said Reagan Dunn, a member of the Metropolitan King County Council, on Wednesday after announcing his mother’s death. “She gave her whole life giving to other people. She touched a lot of lives and did a lot for her country.”

Rep. Dunn served in the U.S. House from 1993 to 2004, representing the district that includes Bellevue, east King County and part of Pierce County.

Head of state GOP

Before that, she became the first woman elected to head the state Republican Party, a position she held from 1981 to 1992.

News of Rep. Dunn’s death broke on the same day that people were gathered in Seattle for the funeral of Karen Marchioro, who in 1981 became the first woman to head the state Democratic Party and held the job during the same period that Rep. Dunn ran the state GOP.

Marchioro died last Thursday after a long battle with cancer.

As head of the state GOP and later as a congresswoman, Rep. Dunn worked hard at wooing new talent to the party.

“One of the classiest acts in state political history has left the stage,” said John Carlson, a conservative radio talk-show host who worked for Rep. Dunn at the state GOP and ran for governor in 2000.

In the early 1980s, Carlson and Bader were among a group of young Republicans at the University of Washington who whipped up a vibrant conservative movement on one of the nation’s most liberal campuses.

“She came to us and said, ‘How’d you like to try to do that in the real world?’ ” said Bader, who also went to work for the state party. “She was a person who unselfishly gave more people opportunity than anyone else in politics.”

In the late 1980s, Rep. Dunn spotted another young Republican named Dino Rossi, who was just becoming active in local politics. She encouraged Rossi to think about running for office, which he did a few years later.

Rossi was eventually elected to the state Senate, where he served for seven years before stepping down to run for governor in 2004 — a race he lost by just 130 votes.

Rep. Dunn led with “graceful strength,” Rossi said Wednesday. “It’s a rare commodity that made her stand out in the crowd.”

Carlson said the state GOP, which over the past decade has seen its numbers slip in Congress and the state Legislature, would be in better shape if more of its elected officials emulated Rep. Dunn.

She was widely thought of as a moderate. Some said she was less than crystal clear on her position on abortion. She said she was pro-choice and found a way to talk about controversial issues without scaring off moderate suburban voters.

Softening message

After the Republican revolution of 1994, Rep. Dunn worked to convince party leaders, including presidential candidate Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, that they needed to soften the GOP’s message so as not to alienate women.

“I said I don’t want the women who should be with us driven away because of an appearance of rigidity in the party,” she during an interview at the 1996 Republican convention. “We weren’t telling the story, the Democrats were using harsh rhetoric, and Newt’s style wouldn’t have worked well to respond. I thought we needed more women out front.”

Rep. Dunn was willing to play that role.

Esser, a former state lawmaker who became state GOP chairman last year, said Rep. Dunn showed Republicans how to win in suburban swing districts. He called it an “amazing feat” that she was able run for Congress in 1992 — after serving more than a decade as party chairwoman — and not appear overtly partisan.

While the 8th District seat is one that Democrats had long coveted, they were never able to mount a serious challenge against her.

Rep. Dunn became the first woman to serve on the House Republican leadership team and later became vice chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee.

She was known for her work on tax issues, for promoting small and women-owned businesses, and for sponsoring the Amber Alert bill to locate missing children.

She was a frequent spokeswoman for the House, once giving the Republican response to a State of the Union address by then-President Clinton. She helped run three Republican national conventions.

In 1998, at the height of her power, she decided to challenge House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, becoming the first woman to ever run for the post. Though she finished third in the vote of her peers, she was not bitter.

“I’m not really disappointed,” she said at the time. “I was cracking that glass ceiling. No woman has ever run for a leadership position like this. I felt it was worth it just for that.”

Opted to step down

President Bush tried to persuade Rep. Dunn to run against U.S. Sen. Patty Murray in 2004. But she declined and then surprised many people when she announced she would not seek re-election to her House seat.

“It is time for me to move on,” Dunn wrote at the time in a letter to supporters. “While I never took a pledge on term limits, I do believe that our nation is better served if from time to time we senior members step aside to allow individuals with fresh ideas to challenge the status quo in Congress.”

Her decision set off a scramble of would-be successors, including Republicans and Democrats. After hard-fought primaries on both sides, former King County Sheriff Dave Reichert managed to retain the seat for the Republicans.

Rep. Dunn went to work for DLA Piper, a law and lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. She left that job earlier this year.

She was recently named to a special panel intended to protect The Wall Street Journal’s editorial independence under its new owner, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

In the nation’s capital, Republicans and Democrats alike praised her Wednesday as a skilled and compassionate politician — one who was both loyal to her party but willing to work across party lines.

Rep. Jim McDermott, a liberal Seattle Democrat who served with Rep. Dunn on Ways and Means, said she often put partisan issues aside for the sake of her state.

“People think everyone [in D.C.] has a D or an R after their name,” McDermott said. “She was somebody who really had a W after her name, thinking about what was best for the state of Washington.”

McDermott said Rep. Dunn’s death was especially sad because it was clear that one of her big reasons for leaving politics was to spend more time with family.

Rep. Dunn, whose first marriage ended in divorce, remarried in 2003, to Keith Thomson, former CEO of the Fluor Corp.’s Hanford cleanup.

“You could sense the sadness on the [House] floor today, so many people who knew she had left to enjoy her family,” McDermott said. The House remembered her Wednesday with a moment of silence.

Besides her husband and son Reagan, she is survived by son Bryant Dunn, stepson Angus Thomson; daughters in-law Jessica Dunn and Paige Dunn; and two grandchildren.

The family has not yet announced funeral plans.

The Associated Press and Seattle Times staff reporters Alicia Mundy and David Postman contributed to this story.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com