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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

Westneat: Dumb money or revival?

Redmond businessman’s $5 million may help Republicans see new path

By Danny Westneat
Published: September 30, 2023, 6:01am

Can the Republican party in Washington state be brought back from the dead?

The conventional wisdom on that for some time has been “no.” Especially not as long as one Donald Trump and his toxic brand of MAGA know-nothingism is still dominating the scene.

But suddenly there are 5 million reasons to reconsider.

A hedge fund manager in Redmond named Brian Heywood is spearheading a $5 million campaign to jump-start the local GOP — $4 million of that pledged in the past month. It’s an audacious plan to get six conservative policy initiatives on the ballot for next year, and it’s drawing notice from Democrats.

“We haven’t seen an outlay for petitioning that large in Washington for many, many years,” writes Andrew Villeneuve, who monitors the political right for the liberal Northwest Progressive Institute. “This is an unprecedented effort, at least in modern political times.”

The money is for paid signature-gatherers. Through August, the only money pledged other than Heywood’s was $50,000 from the Puget Sound chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association PAC.

The goal is to get roughly 400,000 signatures for each of six ballot measures. The measures either cut or limit taxes or seek to cancel recently passed Democratic policies such as the Climate Commitment Act and police-pursuit restrictions.

It’s the first sign of a pulse for Republicans in almost a decade. The party has been decimated in recent elections: It has no statewide officeholders left, and is in the deep minority in the Legislature.

The money means the measures are far more likely to qualify by the year-end deadline (though it probably will take more than $5 million to qualify all six). Heywood tried this last year with volunteers and failed, and now is going all-in for 2024.

“There’s a need to push back,” Heywood said in a video interview late last year. “When you have one-party rule for 30, 40 years, the dominant party becomes a little bit arrogant, and calloused and unconcerned about any other voices than the ones that they hear themselves.”

Heywood is a Harvard grad who came here in 2010 from California and sees himself as an “economic refugee.” When asked why he moved here, he said: “Very honestly, it was taxes, taxes, taxes, taxes.” He later mentioned the Puget Sound’s natural beauty as a fifth reason.

Rich dude hating taxes is not the most inspiring stuff. But Heywood isn’t running for office himself. As Tim Eyman has proved, voters don’t have to trust or like the initiative sponsor to consider the ideas.

What’s savvy about his initiatives is that, with one exception, they avoid the hot-button cultural issues, or the Trump-era election denier conspiracy theories, that bring local GOPers down. No income tax, says one. Repeal the new capital gains tax, says another. Make the new long-term care tax optional, says a third. Repeal the climate change law that’s adding to gas prices, says a fourth.

The one culture war item calls for a “parents’ bill of rights” in public schools, so parents could demand copies of the curriculum and opt their kids out of lessons they don’t like. Bleh. If you want to know what’s going on in your kids’ schools, just get involved. Or ask your kids.

Still, the net effect, should they make the ballot, would be to shift the debate at least somewhat away from the GOP’s own damaged brand. Are you for a state income tax, or not? Climate change fees, or not? It would put the Democrats’ agenda on trial. Bob Ferguson would be asked to answer those questions at every governor debate, instead of just glorying in how many times he sued Trump.

Many voters do favor those things, of course, and Democrats are heavily favored to win in a blue state. But arguing about taxes is much firmer ground for Republicans here than, say, abortion or guns or transgender rights or how they still think the last election was stolen.

The smart money says: If Trump’s on the ballot, he sucks up all the oxygen. Republicans get shellacked here once again.

But $5 million was just pushed to the center of the table, betting otherwise. Dumb money? It’s long odds — it’s like going for an inside straight. But it’s also the first sign in years that the out party has any cards to play at all.