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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Jayne: Robertson part of Washington history

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: June 10, 2023, 6:02am

It might be difficult to imagine a far-right fire-and-brimstone preacher having an influence on politics in deep-blue Washington. But it happened.

This came to mind this week with the death of televangelist Pat Robertson at the age of 93.

Robertson, of course, had an impact on national politics. As religion reporter Elizabeth Dias of the New York Times explains, Robertson “imagined a nation where conservative Christian values reigned in the halls of power. Abortion would be illegal. Prayer would be restored to public schools. Crosses would be prominently displayed in city halls and courthouses. Conservative Christian believers would no longer be ignored, as he felt they were.”

He was wildly successful in bringing that vision to fruition. Arguments can be held about whether or not that has been beneficial for the United States; as I once wrote, he could be “charitably described as a conservative firebrand and less charitably as a small-minded lunatic.” But that’s not the point right now.

No, the point, from a Washington perspective, is that Robertson directly caused a change in this state’s politics.

In 1988, Robertson launched a quixotic campaign for the presidency. He started by energizing evangelicals in Iowa, where the nominating process was to begin, and found support that was unexpected by the nattering nabobs of the political elite. Robertson finished second in the Iowa Republican caucus — behind Bob Dole, but ahead of eventual nominee George H.W. Bush, who was the sitting vice president and the presumptive nominee.

By the time the campaign trail arrived in Washington, Robertson’s campaign was floundering. But Washington, like a handful of states, had a caucus system for its role in the nominating process, and that was perfectly suited to Robertson’s brand of public engagement.

Caucuses, you see, inevitably result in a small fraction of the public making their voices heard. If you can get your supporters to attend a caucus and shout louder than the supporters of other candidates, you have a chance to exert influence. As Ralph Munro, Washington secretary of state from 1981 to 2001, said: “More people go to the boat show than to caucus meetings.”

That was a fact, not hyperbole.

Because Robertson’s victory likely did not reflect the views of most Republican voters in Washington, it provided the impetus for the state to adopt primaries rather than caucuses.

Which makes sense. Caucuses are the horse-and-buggy method for choosing a presidential candidate. As Kim Wyman, who was Washington’s secretary of state from 2013 to 2021, once explained: “You have to sit down with your neighbors and talk politics and religion, which a lot of people don’t want to do.”

In other words, a caucus amplifies the voices of a party’s small-minded lunatics. That hasn’t prevented Iowa, North Dakota, Wyoming and Nevada from clinging to caucus systems for their presidential primaries, but most states have embraced the more democratic (small d) process for weighing in.

Not that Washington’s presidential primary is flawless. The fact that voters don’t register by party creates problems in the presidential race, with voters required to proclaim preference for one party or another. But at least we get to declare that preference at our kitchen table instead of in a crowded room.

Robertson, of course, went on to have greater influence on American politics as a non-candidate. He galvanized the evangelical movement that has morphed into today’s white Christian nationalist powerhouse. As historian Rick Perlstein told The Washington Post this week: “Robertson’s vision buttresses the entire edifice of right-wing evangelical America, in particular his institution-building work creating alternatives to supposedly demonic secular liberal America.”

We won’t debate the demonic part right now, but few states are more secular or liberal than Washington. Which makes it surprising that Pat Robertson is a piece of our political history.

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