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Washington Republicans get ready to rumble in Spokane

Here are six things to watch as they gather for the state GOP convention, where endorsements will likely reveal rifts between conservatives and moderates.

By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard
Published: April 19, 2024, 6:05am

ublican activists are gathering for their party convention in Spokane this week – a three-day fete to organize and energize the grassroots heading into election season.

This year’s event could get bumpy, even chaotic, say attendees. Some fret the main event of endorsing torchbearers will devolve into a showdown between conservative purists and pragmatists keen to select candidates best positioned to defeat Democrats.

Former president Donald Trump holds sway over the hearts and minds of a majority of delegates who are expected to endorse candidates with whom they are politically simpatico – even if those folks are long-shots in November.

Meanwhile, better-known and financed Republican office-seekers – Dave Reichert, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse, for example – may not get endorsed since they don’t hold tickets on the Trump train. But they’re planning to keep running regardless.

“There’s going to be drama. Everything is not already decided,” said Jim Walsh, chair of the Washington State Republican Party and a state lawmaker. “This is what people wanted. They wanted a real convention.”

Candidates will make their pitches to 2,000-plus delegates in the Spokane Convention Center Friday morning and voting will occur on Saturday.

Party leaders scheduled the convention ahead of candidate filing in May to prevent primary races where Republicans split the vote in a way that leaves them off the November ballot. This happened in the 2022 secretary of state’s race when an independent slipped past three GOP contenders.

Those running this year were asked to sign a pledge to end their campaigns and unite behind whomever gets endorsed this week. Theoretically, it will result in one Republican choice per race. But not everyone signed so, in practice, it won’t happen in all cases.

“Political conventions are more fun and true to their origins when they are a little more rambunctious,” said Michael Baumgartner, one of several GOP hopefuls vying for a U.S. House seat.

Below are six storylines we’ll be watching.

Semi vs. Dave: Who will get the official R rating?

Reichert, a former congressman, and Semi Bird, a former Richland school board member, are vying to be Washington’s first Republican governor since the mid-1980s. Their duel for the party’s endorsement – valued as a skeleton key to unlock money and media  – will lay bare the division among the rank-and-file.

Bird arrives on a wave of populist support he dubs “We the People.” He is the pre-convention favorite to get the party’s nod and would be the first Black candidate for Washington governor endorsed by one of the state’s major parties.

He also comes in with little money, having spent most of the $430,000 he’s raised. And a few chinks in his political armor that have fellow Republicans doubting he can win statewide. Steve Gordon, a major party donor, Reichert backer and Pierce County delegate, launched a website containing the kind of material Democrats would love to use to skewer Bird if the chance arises.

Reichert, meanwhile, arrives with a longer political resume – seven terms in Congress and a stint as King County sheriff – and broader name recognition. But his decision to not endorse Trump in 2016 and current silence on the former president’s bid for the Oval Office doesn’t sit well with “We the People.” They’ll get their say.

Have impeachment memories faded?

Ten House Republicans, including Herrera Beutler and Newhouse, voted to impeach Trump in 2021. It will be interesting to see how each is received by delegates.

Herrera Beutler is running for Commissioner of Public Lands. So too is Sue Kuehl Pederson, who lost to the current commissioner, Hilary Franz, in 2020.

Herrera Beutler paid a heavy price for her impeachment vote, losing in the 2022 primary to Joe Kent, a former Army Special Forces soldier who Trump backed. He went on to lose in the general election to Democratic Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez.

Newhouse won reelection in 2022 after surviving the primary. He prevailed in part because he faced multiple Republican challengers who targeted him for his vote. Jerrod Sessler was one. He’s trying again and, in this outing, he’s the only one. And a few days ago Trump blessed his bid to unseat Newhouse.

As of Wednesday, no Democratic candidate had emerged in Newhouse’s district, setting the stage for an all-Republican battle in the August primary and November general election.

A hero’s welcome

Pete Serrano, the lone Republican running for state attorney general, may get the loudest and most raucous welcome. That’s what happens when you beat Washington’s Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson in court, getting a judge to toss out a gun control law.

On April 8, a Cowlitz County Superior Court judge declared the state’s two-year-old ban on the sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines unconstitutional. Serrano, an attorney with Silent Majority Foundation, represented Gator’s Custom Guns in Kelso, along with the business’ owner Walter Wentz.

The ruling is on hold, with sales of the magazines still prohibited, while the state pursues an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Succeeding CMR

Five Republicans are looking to take the reins from Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who is not seeking reelection in the 5th Congressional District that she has represented for nearly two decades. So too are four Democrats ensuring a feisty electoral battle for this eastern Washington seat.

One of the GOP hopefuls is Baumgartner, the Spokane County treasurer and a former state senator. He leads in fundraising. State Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber is doing pretty well too. Terri Cooper, Spokane Councilman Jonathan Bingle and Ferry County Commissioner Brian Dansel are way behind those two.

While Dansel lacks campaign cash, he did serve in the Trump Administration and is reportedly involved with his current presidential campaign committee in Washington. That should score him points with delegates. But with so many choices, it may be tough for Dansel to amass the required majority support to secure the party’s formal backing.

Pledging allegiance

The search for party unity will get tested in the down ballot race for state public schools chief. It’s a nonpartisan seat but it’s usually a very partisan campaign.

Four Republicans – Chad Magendanz, David Olson, Brad Klippert and Vincent Perez are running against incumbent Chris Reykdal, a Democrat. So too is Reid Saaris, who identifies as a Democrat, has allies in both political parties, and raised more than $200,000.

If the number of GOP candidates isn’t whittled down, they could split the vote in the primary, allowing Saaris to move on. That would be like the 2022 secretary of state’s race all over again.

Fanning the flames of liberty

After what could be a divisive day among the rank-and-file, Walsh will need something, or someone, to pull the delegates together when they break bread Friday night. Enter Tina Descovich, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, who is the evening’s keynote speaker.

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The Florida-based nonprofit – which has chapters in Washington – enjoys a national profile in the socially conservative parental rights movement. It’s well known for opposing COVID-19 mandates and LGBTQ+ school curriculum, seeking to get books banned from libraries and fighting “woke ideology.”

It’s got critics and the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed it an extremist anti-government organization because of its tactics and its ties with groups like the Proud Boys.

Empowering parents motivates Washington Republicans. And Democrats know it. That’s why last session the majority party opted to approve an initiative creating a bill of rights for parents of public school students rather than letting it go on the November ballot. Descovich is likely to play up the political win. Don’t be surprised if a few demonstrators show up to voice their disagreement as well.

Key events of the Washington Republican Party Convention

  • Friday, April 19

9 a.m. General Session begins
10 a.m. Candidate speeches
1 p.m. Congressional District caucuses
7 p.m. Banquet and keynote speaker

  • Saturday, April 20

9 a.m. General session
9:15 a.m. Statewide candidate endorsement voting
1 p.m. Endorsement results announcements due in the afternoon

TVW plans to live-stream the general sessions.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.