After being wiped out in the midterms, local Republicans are picking new leaders and talking about a resurrection. But they haven't quite come to grips with what really ails them: Donald Trump.
Republicans in King County gathered recently to reckon with what’s gone wrong with their party, and how to rebuild from the wreckage of the midterm elections.
Curtis Harmon was ready with his pitch.
“Our problem is we are seen as the white people’s party,” he says he told the crowd.
Harmon is a longtime conservative, but had no previous position in the King County GOP, nor has he voted in recent elections. Yet the relative party outsider, a 47-year-old African-American pastor from Des Moines, was chosen as the vice chair of the county Republicans. (Cynthia Cole, who a decade ago was the president of SPEEA, the engineers’ union at Boeing, is the new No. 1.)
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Harmon says the party bringing in new voices is a sign local Republicans get what just happened to them. For the first time, the party was completely wiped out in King County, with no Republicans left in any of the 14 legislative districts that lie predominantly in the county.
In two years, the GOP in King County has lost four state Senate seats, five state House seats and a congressional seat, the 8th.
“There’s no hiding from that,” Harmon told me. “We know we got beat, and got beat badly. We all know what the problems are.”
Do they? This is going to be one of the great debates in regional politics in the coming year. Is there a path back for Republicans, and, if so, how? Or will the party go extinct in the suburbs, as it already is in the city.
It’s not just a question for harping newspaper columnists. Witness what’s going on down in California.
“The California Republican Party isn’t salvageable at this time. The Grand Old Party is dead,” a former GOP Assembly leader said last month, after the party lost a record 47 of the state’s 54 Congressional seats. The carnage touched off a statewide autopsy of sorts inside the party.
There, the debate is about the toxicity at the top. Should Republicans in blue areas divorce from Trump? Double down with him? Or muddle along pretending he doesn’t exist (this is what our Republicans have tried, with poor results).
“Parties usually analyze why they lost, and make adjustments. Not TrumpGOP,” former state GOP chairman Chris Vance lamented earlier this month, talking about the national party. “They know they lost because of Trump, and will keep losing because of Trump. And yet they do nothing. Mass insanity.”
I asked Harmon about this. He said he’s on the “embrace Trump” side of this debate.
“I’m a full supporter of President Trump,” he said. “But I do recognize there is an animus about his behavior that is motivating some of these election losses.”
He said in King County the party has to focus relentlessly on high-visibility local issues, such as homelessness, to show that it is bigger than just Trump. And also to communicate better what Trump is doing right.
“Like prison reform,” Harmon said, referring to the bill to undo some of the harsh mandatory criminal sentencing put in place during the 1990s. The bill is notable in this polarized era because lawmakers from both parties worked on it. And Trump’s involvement to date has been a plus, rather than causing a ruckus.
Harmon said the issue shows how a modern GOP can work to change its image.
“We are seen as a party that doesn’t care about minorities,” he said. “But here we are working to right some wrongs that have been tilted against black people for years. I’m passionate that this is the kind of direction the party needs to go.”
Embracing more liberal policies, like gun control, and distancing themselves from Trump has worked for some Republicans in blue places, such as New England.
But neither is really happening here. In fact, since the election, the King County GOP has been sending out approving tweets whenever sheriffs in red counties say they won’t enforce Initiative 1639, the gun-control measure. But this law passed by 19 percentage points statewide, and by 52 points in King County.
“We’re not going to become liberals,” Harmon said. “But I am saying we need to provide common-sense alternatives to all the issues the liberals are most focused on.”
It’s a start, but I predict it will only get worse for local Republicans as long as Trump is in office. He’s that radioactive around here. They should split from him entirely, before he inevitably craters the entire operation.
Yet not one elected Republican official in our state has moved to do this. Look to California — I guess the real key to recovery is you have to hit absolute rock bottom first.