KENNEWICK — Shasti Conrad could have visited any part of Washington for her first big trip out as the new chair of the Washington State Democratic Party.
So why spend a week roaming the arid, Republican stronghold of Southeast Washington?
“I felt like it was really important to show that I was going to be a chair for the entire state,” Conrad told the Tri-City Herald over a stop in Kennewick.
“I lived in the western part of the state. I was chair of King County Democrats for four years. Those folks know me, I know them. But now I’m chair for the whole state and it’s important to me that we are playing in all parts of the state, and that I have these relationships — and that when we’re talking about messaging and perspective that it is inclusive of a more rural Washington.”
Conrad — a former Obama Administration staffer and political consultant by trade — spent most of last week speaking at party luncheons and forums in Walla Walla, Dayton and Yakima. Her visit concluded with an event hosted by the Tri-City Democrats.
In the coming months, Washington Democrats will look to build a broad coalition of Eastern Washington candidates to run for local offices in Yakima, Sunnyside and Pasco, and then pivot to statewide opportunities in 2024.
During the 2022 midterm election, nearly 200,000 voted for Democratic candidates in Washington’s 4th and 5th Congressional districts, and Conrad believes there’s some ground to be gained in Eastern Washington.
“You have to operate at the speed of trust,” she said. “It’s neighborliness, you know. And I think as Democrats we know that is true when organizing, but I think we’ve forgot about that a little bit, that we could be doing that type of work in places, like out here.”
Conrad was selected to lead the Washington Democrats on Jan. 28, after then-Chair Tina Podlodowski announced plans to step down. She received the backing of Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington’s two U.S. senators in her bid for party head.
At 38, she is the youngest chair in the party’s history and the first woman of color to serve.
“We think she is going to be a great party chair,” said Franklin County Democrats Chair Ana Ruiz Kennedy.
Raised on a farm in Newberg, Ore., Conrad knows all too well the struggles of rural organizing.
It takes plenty of time and boots-on-the-ground politicking — two things that, when it comes to the Tri-Cities, Democrats have historically neglected to invest in.
Ruiz Kennedy said it’s exciting to have Conrad looking to Southeast Washington for opportunity.
“That’s something we have brought to her (attention) and something that we want to have the state’s buy-in because it’s different from what we have typically seen from the party,” she said.
Running on Republican fatigue
The Tri-Cities skews conservative, despite pockets of Pasco and Richland where Democrats outperform Republicans on a consistent basis. Former President Donald Trump won Benton County during the 2020 presidential election by a margin of 20 percentage points and Franklin County by a margin of 14 percentage points.
Conrad believes many voters are fatigued by the GOP’s fascination with Trump. So much so that Democrats are hoping they can key in on the political pessimism that’s permeated moderate voters.
She points to Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, who edged out Trump-backed candidate Joe Kent last year in an incumbentless general election battle to represent Southwest Washington in Congress.
The district leans Republican but had gone for Obama in 2008. A Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican, had represented the seat for more than a decade until this year.
“(Perez) was able to speak to the issues in a way that matched what folks were going through, and we were able to really build on the organizing that had been done on previous cycles to do that. So, we’ve got to be doing that out here …,” Conrad said.
They’ll need to highlight recent Democratic accomplishments — including the Child Tax Credit expansion and President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — to win over working families, Conrad said.
“This is their choice: The GOP is not abandoning Trump and that MAGA, far-right mentality,” Conrad said. “We’re not dealing with the Republican Party of your grandparents’ era, where we can have conversations about tax code. That’s not what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with folks who, I think, are out of alignment with Democracy.”
Conrad’s predecessor, Podlodowski, made ripples last year after lambasting the former Benton County Democrats chair for endorsing a Republican candidate in an open Benton County prosecutor race where no Democrat was competing.
Richard Reuther, former Benton County Democrats chair, said he thought it was appropriate to let Democrats know which candidate he believed was the more qualified and moderate.
Conrad said they have to take those issues on a case-by-case basis, and at the end of the day they’re going to support Democrats.
“I believe very much in a big-tent party, but at the end of the day there has to be a baseline. You have to be willing to say, ‘Yes, I believe in the values of the Democratic Party,’” she said.
2024 and beyond
It’s not clear yet if Democrats will challenge any Tri-City legislators in 2024. Seats representing the 8th, 15th and 16th Legislative Districts are filled solidly by Republicans.
U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., will run for a fifth term at the top of the Democratic ticket, Conrad says.
Inslee has not said yet whether or not he plans to run for what would be, by all accounts, an unprecedented fourth term for governor.
Democrats currently hold all the executive statewide offices, and Conrad says they will work to keep those while also advocating for more cultural and racial diversity in the Legislature.
“I think he’s been an incredible governor and I think it’s ultimately his decision. But if he decides to go for it we’ll support him, and if not we’ll see who takes poll position and we’ll support them,” Conrad said of Inslee.