Friday, March 24, 2023
March 24, 2023

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Westneat: State GOP fights for its life

Washington Republicans ‘don’t even like ourselves right now,’ consultant says


At first blush, the Washington political landscape seems little changed after the recent elections. We were blue before, and we still are now — and about the same hue.

But beneath the surface, the midterms may have cued up some sea changes anyway — especially among Republicans.

A GOP consultant told a crowd in Tacoma at a recent political panel that his party, after no red wave was spotted anywhere on the horizon, is at a crucial pivot point.

The party ran some of its stronger candidates in recent memory, at least in the down-ballot, state legislative races. It made no difference. The thumping has party leaders finally doing some public soul-searching about the reasons for their toxic brand.

“We’ve got to make a decision: Are we a grievance culture, or do we want to be a governing majority?” asked Kevin Carns, who runs the political operation for the state House Republicans in Olympia. He was speaking at the Re-Wire Policy Conference, an annual gathering of local politicos.

Carns added that in exit polling, the GOP had a lower approval number in Western Washington than there are a base number of Republican voters. Which means? “We don’t even like ourselves right now,” he concluded.

This taking stock, if Republicans are serious about it, is interesting in light of a new analysis of Washington state’s political system, and how polarized it is. The Center for Legislative Accountability, a conservative group, analyzed the voting patterns of all 7,000-plus state lawmakers in the nation.

The main takeaway nationally is that politicians are more separated, more polarized, than ever. Red legislators are voting redder and blue ones bluer, with fewer crossing the aisle on policy votes or deviating much from strict ideological labels.

There’s a chasm here in Washington. GOP lawmakers in Olympia voted the red position on bills, as defined by this group, 82 percent of the time, while Dems did only 7 percent. That’s a 75-point void between the two parties. (A liberal look at voting records would presumably find similar gaps.)

But these latest conservative rankings reveal something: The most extreme members of our state Legislature, at least on the GOP side, are now suddenly all out of office. The top five most conservative legislators in the state were either just voted out or left politics for other reasons.

The point here is that while voters gave Republicans a shellacking, they also gave them a face-lift. It’s an opening to take a new direction, one that’s less dominated by their most extremist voices.

As for the Democrats, they aren’t likely to change course. Why would they when voters just endorsed their agenda? But some cracks are forming anyway.

“I think there’s been a failure of the Democratic Party to try to govern statewide,” said Kamau Chege, director of the Washington Community Alliance, a coalition for more diverse representation in politics. He noted there’s a legislative district in Yakima, the 15th, that was drawn up to be split roughly half and half between traditionally D and R voting blocs. But Democrats just got blitzkrieged there anyway.

GOP Senate hopeful Tiffany Smiley beat incumbent U.S. Sen. Patty Murray there by nearly 30 percentage points, even while losing the whole state in a landslide.

“Why do (the Democrats) have these terrible margins in Central and Eastern Washington?” Chege brought up. “You shouldn’t be losing a 50-50, majority Latino district, in Yakima, by 30 points.”

Even in Seattle, Chege noted, some groups of formerly solid Democratic voters seem to be getting restless — such as in the Chinatown International District.

Smiley got just 10 percent of the Seattle vote. But a precinct analysis shows that she did two to three times better than that in the heart of Seattle’s Chinatown International District.

“I think going ahead you’re going to have to do more to win over these working-class voters, non-college-educated voters,” Chege warned of the Democrats.

Obviously the GOP has the far greater challenge here. They can’t just pivot to the future, either — to me, they’ve got to publicly repudiate their Trumpian ways, or face perpetual minority status in this state.

With their most extreme members gone from the scene, they’ve got an opportunity. Whether they take it, and how, is going to shape Washington politics for years to come.