Clark County's GOP takes new path

As local Republican Party shakes up leadership, stakes out sharply conservative platform, some longtime members say they don't feel welcome

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Conservative activist types

• Tea Party: Matt Barreto, politics professor at the University of Washington, described Tea Party members as having diverse conservative views, their uniting principle being their opposition to President Barack Obama. The Tea Party movement was born in 2009 out of protests over Obama and Congress passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, an economic stimulus package, without any Republican votes in the House and only two in the Senate. Some themes within the Tea Party movement include an opposition to raising taxes, and a desire to rein in government spending and protect the right to keep and bear arms.

• Libertarians: Barreto described libertarians as having a more unified vision than Tea Party members. They value personal freedoms and a limited federal government. Alex Hays, of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, noted that the libertarian movement has been around for years in Washington state politics, though the enthusiasm among libertarians seems to ebb and flow. Experts also noted that there is plenty of overlap in the belief systems between Tea Party members and libertarians.

• Cast-iron conservatives: Journalists at the Washington Post recently put out a call to help them describe the U.S. House Republican anti-establishment faction that includes Tea Party and libertarian conservatives. After hearing several suggestions, they settled on the term cast-iron conservatives, noting that the "label is a fitting one for this group who prize principle over politics and believe that any bending in those principles is a prelude to a breaking. … And, like cast iron, it's very hard to manipulate them — even under intense pressure."

Platform points

Since the new Clark County GOP's board was elected in December, the group has passed these resolutions:

• Supporting Second Amendment rights.

• Opposing a federal income tax and demanding the Internal Revenue Service be abolished.

• Opposing the Columbia River Crossing.

The lineup of speakers at the Clark County GOP's annual Lincoln Day Dinner this spring signaled that change was afoot within the local party.

Missing was mainstream gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, headliner at the group's fundraising event last year, and in previous years. Instead, party members welcomed one of McKenna's primary challengers in the 2012 elections, Shahram Hadian, who received 3 percent of the statewide primary vote to McKenna's 43 percent.

As Hadian spoke, he called the government "lawless, unconstitutional and, in my opinion, at times criminal." Self-described "fanatic about freedom" Richard Mack, a gun-rights activist, also addressed the group, saying: "The federal government is not our boss."

The event's speakers are just one example of how the libertarian and Tea Party conservatives now leading the Clark County Republican Party have started to bring about their own political vision, making choices that set them apart from — and at times marginalize — moderates in the GOP.

As the party's new board advances an agenda promoting civil liberties and fiscal responsibility, political experts remain skeptical that the new group will make big, anti-establishment waves in state or national elections — especially in a state as blue as Washington.

Even so, experts predict the new group could rein in some of the centrist tendencies of local incumbent Republicans, who loathe the idea of the party pitting a primary challenger against them. Pundits also say the recent movement of libertarian and Tea Party Republicans is just the latest example of growing pains within an evolving political organization.

The new board

The overhaul of Clark County GOP leadership that took place in December was several months in the making. The movement began in the spring of 2012 during a grass-roots push to elect anti-establishment Republicans to precinct committee officer positions.

PCOs are the worker bees of a political party, and they are picked by voters during each even-year primary election. Each of Clark County's 222 voter precincts may have one Democratic and one Republican PCO. They conduct political outreach in their own neighborhoods, and they also vote on who should sit on the local party's board of directors.

Republican Christian Berrigan of Brush Prairie helped create the PCO Liberty Alliance. He said the movement was born out of frustration with the Clark County GOP, which had thrown its support behind Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney in the 2012 primary. Many disillusioned Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum supporters in the county, along with other reformists, decided to team up and challenge the establishment.

"We have heard in our canvassing efforts that you have felt like the party doesn't represent you as well as it could," Berrigan wrote to fellow conservatives during the PCO campaigns. "You encouraged us to recover the GOP from an 'establishment mentality.' … We want to make the party one that better represents you, one that you are more proud to support, one that appeals to a broader base of voters and welcomes new people into its ranks."

In all, about 150 PCO Liberty Alliance candidates ran for PCO seats, and more than 90 of them won. That gave them enough power to put a new Clark County GOP board in place the following December.

"Basically, the Liberty Alliance took over the Clark County Republican Party last night," outgoing Chairwoman Stephanie McClintock quipped after board elections in December. At the time, self-described moderate Republican Brent Boger, another former chair of the Clark County GOP, called new board members "self-righteous ideologues" who were out of step with most Republicans.

Now at the helm of the new Clark County GOP are Chairwoman Lynda Wilson and Vice Chairman Steven Nelson. Both have had leadership positions in We the People Vancouver — Vancouver's Tea Party organization. Wilson is a fixture at local gun-rights events, and Wilson and Nelson have taken courses to increase their know-how of the U.S. Constitution.

Berrigan, a Santorum supporter during the 2012 presidential primaries, is the new board's operations director. Several other board members described themselves as having libertarian values.

Wilson said the new GOP organization is "an activist, agenda-driving party" and questioned the need to distinguish between conservative and moderate Republicans when she was reached for comment.

"Who defines 'moderate' and 'conservative'?" she wrote by email. "We believe people of good faith can have differing opinions on some important issues. We are not afraid of debate and persuasion. Ideology is not as important as truth."

Since taking over, the new local GOP shuttered its party headquarters in Vancouver and put the rent money toward campaigns and other expenses. Its central committee passed a few resolutions: one threatening to recall elected officials who support increasing gun regulations; another seeking to replace the federal income tax with a system that lets states decide how to collect federal taxes; and a third opposing the controversial Columbia River Crossing project.

They also made changes to their board of directors and bylaws, giving their precinct committee officers more say.

In the aftermath of local GOP board changes, Wilson said the new leadership is "not looking back to what has been, rather looking forward toward a common goal of getting Republicans elected."

Room for moderates?

Some moderate Republicans say they feel included in the newly overhauled party, but others remain on the outside, looking in.

Former Republican county commissioner and state lawmaker Marc Boldt considers himself a conservative Republican — not even a moderate — and he said he still feels estranged from the Clark County GOP leadership.

Boldt had a dramatic exit from the political stage. Last year, prior to the PCO Liberty Alliance movement, the previous Clark County GOP board sanctioned Boldt for a series of actions that GOP officials deemed were out of sync with the party. The GOP cut Boldt off from campaign support in his county commissioner re-election race and backed a more conservative candidate, David Madore, who won.

"I consider myself a conservative Republican that listens and tries to get along, and I try to get things done. I think that I see eye-to-eye with the average person," Boldt said. "I agree with the Republican Party, but I don't agree with the new leadership right now."

Boldt is still a PCO in the local party, but he's not too involved with the organization these days. He said the party leadership is so reactionary to Democratic policies that it isn't focusing on issues important to Republicans in Southwest Washington, including county roads and parks, and the budget challenges facing state and national governments.

"They're just saying the Democrats are bad, so let's be against everything the Democrats say," Boldt said.

Boldt also said he believes the average Republican in Clark County isn't of the same philosophy as the current GOP board. If those everyday Republicans don't take back control of the party, then many of the party's supporters could leave and become independents, he added.

"When we come out contrary to Democrats, it is because of a difference in principles and values, not simply because they are Democrats," Wilson said in response to Boldt. "The majority of Republican voters in Clark County voted Mr. Boldt out of office. We agreed with that majority."

Meanwhile, incumbent Republican Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey, who considers himself a moderate, was upbeat about the GOP changes during an interview earlier this year.

"There's a lot more energy in the party, a lot more people engaged, and a lot more people involved," Kimsey said. "I haven't gotten any indication that the moderate Republicans are not welcome in the local party."

His PCO seat was challenged during the 2012 election by a member of the Liberty Alliance, but Kimsey won. These days, Kimsey is involved with the Clark Forward movement, a bipartisan effort to restructure county government.

"The board is only a little more conservative than the previous board," said Mike Gaston, former executive director of the local GOP, "but it's a different group of conservatives."

Gaston, who helps provide his institutional knowledge to the new board, said leaders have done a good job of communicating with their PCOs and keeping them busy. That's important, because "the political cycle is 24 months, and you don't wait until the last 90 days (before an election) to get involved," he said.

Boger, who once worried the new party leadership was full of ideologues, still thinks the board should be more tolerant of different views. But, he said he's encouraged that some members of the new GOP have reached out to him recently. Boger announced last year, around the time of the Boldt sanctions, that he was leaving the organization but still considered himself a Republican.

"I don't really have as big of a problem with the board as I thought I would," Boger said in an interview this month. These days, Boger is focused on his nonpartisan role as a Washougal city councilman and said he plans to campaign for some Republican candidates in future elections.

It might take more time for the new Clark County GOP, and the latest conservative movement, to gain acceptance among moderates at the state level, said Alex Hays, executive director of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington.

"It's organic, and there is this getting-to-know-you phase," Hays said, adding that similar movements are taking places in a few other Washington counties. "It's going to take a little more time to build a trusting relationship."

Hays said it's normal for the Republican Party to go through periods — or "blips" — of division and healing, and he said this latest wave of conservative activism is no exception. There was a similar movement in the late 1980s, when presidential candidate Pat Robinson energized the religious right, for example. These days, it's libertarians Ron Paul and his son, Rand Paul, who are making headlines, he said.

"It's cyclical. … It's a very predictable trend," Hays said. At the end of the day, "there are a lot more people who enter the Republican Party because of Rob McKenna than because of Ron Paul."

The grass-roots movements change things for a while, then some of the party newcomers are weeded out if they can't properly manage their organizations, he said. Likewise, anti-establishment candidates who can't get enough votes end up fading into political obscurity.

Republicans are quick to point out that they aren't the only ones to oust their straying members. Just this summer, Dwight Pelz, chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, publicly declared that former State Auditor Brian Sonntag, a moderate Democrat, was no longer a part of the party. Pelz pointed to Sonntag's involvement in the Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank.

Party division is also on display at the federal level. As Obama comes under fire from liberal Democrats for failing to take a strong enough stand against conservatives in Congress, Republican House Speaker John Boehner continues to butt heads with Tea Party and libertarian Republicans in his ranks. Some of them joined forces and tried to oust Boehner as speaker in January.

Since then, some in the faction have cautioned Boehner against supporting comprehensive immigration reforms, raising the nation's debt limit, or paying for Obama's 2010 health care reforms.

Additionally, the anti-establishment movement has interfered with Republican election success in U.S. Senate races, said Matt Barreto, political professor at the University of Washington.

Take Tea Party-backed Christine O'Donnell, who lost her Senate bid in Delaware after ousting a mainstream Republican in the primary. He was thought to have a better chance at winning in the general election, which O'Donnell lost to a Democrat. A similar situation happened in Indiana, where Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock unseated a Republican incumbent senator in the primary and then went on to lose the general election to a Democrat.

Looking ahead

Changes within the Clark County GOP underscore a larger debate about which is the best path forward for Republicans. Is it OK to compromise some principles to appeal to the mainstream and win more elections? Or is it better to remain philosophically pure and hope that engaging your most ardent followers will lead to political victory?

While the former Clark County GOP might have believed in appealing to the mainstream, the new GOP is taking a different approach. Barreto said the philosophically pure path might not get the new GOP very far, but it will still play a significant part in local politics.

"They'll definitely play a role in sending signals and constraining the actions of incumbent Republicans," Barreto said. "No incumbent candidate wants to face a primary challenger. It's going to make them look weak. It's going to make them look like the party is not united behind them."

Wilson, the Clark County GOP chair, said one of the primary roles of the local party is to help with election campaigns.

"We believe if we advocate for our principles and for our country, the winning will take care of itself," she said. Additionally, "we have made some great strides in ground game strategies and are excited to begin the use of these systems."

Boger said he's heard rumblings about primary challenges to local incumbent Republicans, but he's not taking them too seriously. He added that the Clark County Republicans should take note of recent U.S. Senate elections.

"They'd be in control of the U.S. Senate today if they weren't that way," he said of Republicans. "Some say it doesn't matter. I think it matters whether (Democrat) Harry Reid is the majority leader or (Republican) Mitch McConnell is."


Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com