Moderate Republicans win primary round at precinct level

Grass-roots control of local GOP to continue?

By Lauren Dake, Columbian political writer

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The battle for the future of the Clark County Republican Party has been waged in neighborhoods across the county in the past couple of months. In this round of the ongoing war, the establishment Republicans declared victory.

Look no further than the race to serve as Precinct Committee Officer 225 — where Dick Sohn, who has Tea Party leanings, went up against Ann Donnelly, who considers herself more of a moderate Republican. Donnelly garnered a whopping 67 percent to Sohn's 33 percent in Tuesday's primary race.

"I was targeted," Sohn said, adding the attacks came from the well organized "old guard," the "mushy middle," those who want to "go along, to get along."

The two are neighbors and were careful not to disparage one another personally. But Donnelly said she was inspired to run because she was tired of seeing more moderate Republicans feeling as though they weren't welcome.

"I felt some of the people who should be involved were not feeling welcome in the party anymore," Donnelly said.

The factions within the local Republican party are not new. In 2012, there was a push to elect anti-establishment Republicans by those who considered themselves more conservative grass-roots Republicans. Like now, the two sides rallied behind getting like-minded precinct committee officers elected.

In many ways, the precinct committee officers are the heart of the party and its worker bees. They invigorate the voters in their neighborhoods and elect the leaders who will set the platform and tone for the party.

When Christian Berrigan of Brush Prairie helped create the PCO Liberty Alliance in 2012, he backed more than 150 PCO candidates — more than 90 won — which sparked an overhaul of the GOP Party leadership.

There are 247 precincts, and each can have a PCO from each party. Only contested races go to the ballot. There were 42 contested Republican races on Tuesday's ballot, compared with three contested Democratic races.

Even though it appears the bulk of Republican contested PCO seats were won by established Republicans, there were enough non-contested races going to more conservative candidates that party officials believe the local GOP will likely remain controlled by those of the grass roots persuasion. The party will vote in December on new leadership.

"There was a huge change two years ago locally, and I don't think you can expect that level of momentum every two years," Berrigan said.

Clark County Republican Party Chairman Kenny Smith said he has worked to transform the party from what he considered a top-down organization to one with more power weilded by the PCOs.

Smith said he's hopeful having more of the moderate Republicans involved will be a good thing for the party.

"I don't want to be surrounded by 'yes' men," Smith said. "I want to have the differing points of view and everyone is needed."

Brent Boger, a former chairman of the Clark County GOP, blasted the newcomers a couple years ago as being "self-righteous ideologues" who were out of step with most of the local Republicans. Boger said more recently his view has tempered. It's still not all "peaches and cream," he said.

"I still have disagreements with them. But I can see they have reached out to moderate Republicans like me," he said. "They solicit my opinion sometimes and are trying to be a big-tent party more than I ever thought they would be."