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GOP candidates battle for endorsement in Washington governor race

Dave Reichert and Semi Bird want to be on the general election ballot to replace Jay Inslee

By Jim Brunner, The Seattle Times
Published: April 9, 2024, 6:03am
2 Photos
Semi Bird addresses the crowd at a fundraising event at The Lodge at Frontier Park Graham on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023.
Semi Bird addresses the crowd at a fundraising event at The Lodge at Frontier Park Graham on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. (Daniel Kim/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — Next week, thousands of Republicans will gather at the Spokane Convention Center to decide which candidates to endorse for the 2024 election, including for governor.

The vote might seem like a formality — even a no-brainer.

Dave Reichert, the former congressman and King County sheriff, has raised more than $2 million, and early polls suggest he’d be competitive in a November gubernatorial matchup with Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the leading Democrat.

But a substantial number of GOP activists are pushing to endorse Semi Bird, a military veteran and former Richland School Board member who was recalled by voters there last summer for his vote to defy Washington’s indoor mask mandate at the time. While he’s raised just $420,000, he has attracted grassroots support and racked up endorsements from 16 county party organizations.

It’s a debate more about electability and what the Republican Party stands for than any policy dispute. Both Reichert and Bird emphasize a shift away from tax increases and climate regulations pushed through by majority Democrats and for get-tough approaches on homeless encampments, drugs and crime.

Bird is unabashed in his support for Donald Trump, saying he voted for the presumptive GOP nominee in the state’s recent presidential primary. Reichert declined to endorse Trump as a congressman and won’t say whether he supports him this year.

No one knows which way the GOP’s solidly pro-Trump base will turn when roughly 2,200 delegates vote on their endorsement on April 20, with the winner receiving what the state party has said will be its “full and exclusive support.”

State GOP Chair Jim Walsh said delegates may back either candidate and predicted “it’s not going to be a blowout” for anyone. “I think it’s going to be a real race, and I don’t know who is going to prevail,” he said. “They’re both strong candidates in their own way.”

It’s possible the party could endorse neither candidate, or both.

The early endorsement process — a new experiment for the state GOP — was created in a bid for unity. The idea was to avoid a repeat of past elections in which too many Republican candidates in some races split the vote in the state’s top-two primary, allowing only Democrats to advance to the general election.

This year, the party has asked candidates to sign a pledge to abide by the convention endorsement outcome, with the losers dropping out and endorsing the winner. Bird signed the pledge; Reichert, as of last week, had not, according to Walsh.

The party can’t legally force any candidate to drop out, and Reichert is expected to soldier on to the Aug. 6 primary even if he doesn’t get his party’s formal backing. He could even seek to turn it to his advantage, saying it shows his independence.

Reichert acknowledges the convention battle he’ll be facing.

“I don’t think concern is the right word, but I am dedicated, dedicated to acquiring the number of delegates that we need. And I think I am pretty positive we will have a positive result,” he said in an interview.

Bird has sounded even more optimistic.

“It looks like we should have the delegates for a victory,” he said in an interview. “We have been going out and engaging people instead of focusing on the big-dollar fundraisers. And it’s paying off.”

The looming convention vote has prompted a raging debate among Reichert and Bird surrogates over which candidate is the best GOP standard-bearer.

Bird supporters have attacked Reichert as a “RINO,” Republican In Name Only, pointing to votes in Congress when he represented the swing 8th Congressional District, including when he sided with Democrats to back a 2009 bill that would have created a national cap-and-trade system limiting carbon emissions.

Loren Culp, the Republican Party’s 2020 candidate for governor, has ripped Reichert and stumped for Bird on social media, saying the party should ignore establishment political chatter about his chances.

“It’s not a win if you put a democrat into office … Vote for the right man not because you’re told to, because you know who the best choice is, and then let God take it from there,” he wrote on social media platform X.

Reichert’s backers warn choosing Bird would amount to a political death wish in Washington, where the GOP hasn’t won a governor’s race since 1980 and is currently shut out of every statewide office.

“If they go with Bird, their fundraising will go to zero. They will lose all their credibility,” said Cary Condotta, a former state legislator and a Chelan County representative on the GOP’s state committee.

Dave McMullan, chair of the Pierce County Republican Party, which has endorsed Reichert, pointed to Bird’s lackluster fundraising. “If Republicans want to have a shot at the governor’s mansion, we need to just use common sense and not conservative purity tests,” he said.

Bird dropped his paid campaign staff before Christmas and has been relying on volunteers. As of the end of February, his campaign had a bank balance of $19,000, compared with $810,000 for Reichert and $4 million for Ferguson. Mark Mullet, a Democratic state senator also running, had about $520,000.

Bird predicts his campaign will pull in more money if he wins the GOP endorsement and notes he’s raised more so far than Culp had at the same point four years ago.

In advance of the convention, however, Reichert backers have spotlighted Bird’s past legal and financial problems, posting public records on a website funded by Steve Gordon, a major GOP donor and Reichert supporter.

Those records detail issues including a felony theft charge filed against Bird in 1996 after he failed to return a pistol he’d been issued as a Yakima County sheriff reserve officer after leaving. The charge was dismissed after the gun was returned.

They’ve also highlighted Bird’s more recent legal dispute involving a homebuilding business he ran, called Patriot Builders. Dick and Robin Valore, a couple from Colorado who hired the firm to build their retirement house in Cle Elum, say they had to hire contractors and a lawyer to help resolve a nightmarish host of problems they found in 2020 after they moved in, including attic mold and poor drainage.

In an interview, the Valores said Bird took some steps to fix the issues but ultimately failed to resolve them and broke off contact. They filed for arbitration and won a judgment of more than $60,000 but say they were only paid after placing a lien on another Bird property. They say they received another $70,000 from Bird’s insurance company.

“We’re not out to politically submarine this guy,” said Robin Valore. But, she said, despite his repeated promises, “this guy deserted us — he deserted us.”

Bird says the construction work was done by subcontractors and occurred partly during pandemic shutdowns, when many builders struggled. He said he’d never had any similar problems with homes he built.

He called the attacks by Reichert backers “wrong and immoral” and disputed the Valores’ account. “I didn’t run away from this. I paid the arbitration amount with my own money, trying to do the right thing,” he said in a text message.

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In a podcast and chat with supporters last week, Bird smiled about the “group out there to assassinate my character” saying he understands it’s political, not personal.

“Once we win the convention, I am going to reach out to you with an open hand to shake your hand and to unite,” he said.

Reichert in the interview said he’s comfortable with coming under attack from the right and the left and that “people know that I’m this moderate independent thinker.”

He has largely avoided focusing on Bird, instead concentrating on a presumed matchup this fall with Ferguson.

Speaking recently to the Pierce County Republican Party, Reichert looked ahead to taking office next year and reshaping state government.

“When we get in there, then we are going to start making some changes. We are going to start showing our conservative ideas. We are going to start showing people in this state conservative ideas are good, and they help people,” he said.

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