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News / Politics / Election

Washington GOP endorses Semi Bird for governor at Trump-dominated convention

By Jim Brunner, The Seattle Times
Published: April 21, 2024, 2:01pm

SPOKANE — The last time Washington Republicans met in person for a state convention, they were not yet sold on Donald Trump.

At the 2016 gathering in Pasco, supporters of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz outnumbered Trump backers, and many talked openly about their misgivings. Some went on to the national GOP convention in Cleveland that summer and engaged in a futile, last-ditch effort to deny Trump the nomination.

Eight years later, the Washington GOP, like the national Republican Party, is indisputably the party of Trump.

That was on full display this week in Spokane, where the 2024 GOP state convention was filled with Trump hats, Trump shirts, life-size Trump cutout figures, Trump flags — and a parade of pro-Trump delegates and candidates.

This was a Trump show. It was also a Semi Bird show.

The GOP, as expected, endorsed Bird for governor on Saturday, with more than 70% of the roughly 1,800 delegates backing him over former Congressman and King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, who never showed up.

Reichert withdrew his endorsement bid on Friday, slamming the Republican Party event as a chaotic and deceitful sideshow.

In contrast with the drama on Friday, when some top state GOP officials sparked a loud protest when they unsuccessfully tried to disqualify Bird for an endorsement over what they termed a lack of candor about his past legal problems, Saturday’s proceeding was relatively calm.

Bird was greeted by rapturous cheers, firing up the crowd with an exuberant speech exhorting them to carry him to the governor’s office in November.

He acknowledged his past struggles, including the federal misdemeanor bank larceny conviction from 1993 reported by The Seattle Times, which GOP officials cited in trying to disqualify him, saying he should have disclosed it earlier in the party’s candidate-vetting process.

“If you want me to apologize for falling, if you want me to apologize for making mistakes in life, I will apologize. I will take ownership. But I will not live in shame for the rest of my life for the sins of my past,” Bird said.

He pledged, if elected, to call for a “third-party audit” of state government programs, to end the “sanctuary” policies for undocumented immigrants and to fully support police.

Republicans delegates continued to display a grudge against former U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler over her 2021 vote to impeach Trump for his role in stoking the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

When Herrera Beutler, now a candidate for Commissioner of Public Lands, spoke to the convention on Friday, she was greeted with boos and dozens of delegates who stood and turned their backs to her.

On Saturday, the convention endorsed Sue Kuehl Pederson, a retired scientist, over Herrera Beutler, giving Pederson 86% of the vote.

While largely drama-free, the convention on Saturday was periodically bogged down in arguments among the 1,800 delegates about parliamentary and voting procedures and rules — and even an extended debate on how long to break for lunch.

State GOP Chair Jim Walsh opened the day with pushback against “mainstream media” descriptions of the previous day as chaotic.

“Let’s help our friends in the media understand that this is not chaos. This is not chaotic. This is a live and real political convention,” he said.

As the day went on, dozens of people gave brief speeches seeking to win election as delegates to the Republican National Convention scheduled for July in Milwaukee, where Trump will be formally nominated for president.

The prospective delegates took turns at microphones and touted their endorsements on a Trump-backed slate, or otherwise sought to one-up each other on their conservative and Trump bona fides. Several said they’d been supporters from the time Trump announced his 2016 candidacy.

“When Donald J. Trump came down that golden escalator, I knew that God’s hand was with him. I knew it. I knew God chose him for such a time as this,” said Georgene Faries, a delegate from Snohomish County.

Another woman seeking a delegate slot told the crowd she looks forward to voting to nominate Trump in 2024, “so we can make the liberals cry again.”

In other signs of the increasingly conservative and populist strains of the Trump-era GOP, the convention vendor booths included displays from vaccine skeptics and for the John Birch Society, the far-right group famously repudiated and chased from the state party by Republican Gov. Dan Evans in the 1960s.

In the governor’s race, the endorsement for Bird handed him publicity and momentum, but it won’t stop Reichert from continuing to run in the Aug. 6 primary, which will winnow the race to two finalists for the November general election.

Some Reichert supporters at the convention said they understand his decision to avoid the obviously pro-Bird crowd.

Becka Thompson, a delegate from Puyallup, said she admires Reichert, but was also thinking realistically about which candidate has a shot at winning in Washington. Purity tests will doom the GOP, she said.

“If you compare your candidate to an ideal that doesn’t exist — lose, lose, lose. Go ahead and look up Loren Culp and find out how that works,” Thompson said Saturday, referring to the GOP’s 2020 gubernatorial candidate, who lost to Gov. Jay Inslee by more than a half-million votes.

While even some of his detractors say he’s a dynamic and charismatic speaker, Bird has not shown strength yet in the limited polling in the gubernatorial race and has raised about $400,000, compared with Reichert’s $2.6 million.

The former Richland School Board member was recalled by voters there last year after voting with two other School Board members to make masks optional in local schools, defying a state masking mandate.

If Bird were to win, he’d be the first Black governor of Washington, and either he or Reichert would be the first Republican to win the office since 1980.

Reichert is concentrating on a presumed matchup with Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the leading Democrat in the race. State Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, is also running and trying to carve out a path as a moderate Ferguson alternative.

Ferguson attacked Republicans in a statement Saturday.

“No matter who the chaotic Republican Convention endorses doesn’t change the fact that both congressman Reichert and Bird are deeply out of touch with Washingtonians, and will put our fundamental freedoms in jeopardy,” he said. “Unlike anti-choice Republican Dave Reichert, I will never quit when things get tough.”

Mathew Patrick Thomas, the chair of the King County Republicans, said the “us against them” conflict between newer GOP activists and the more establishment wing that was on display this week is nothing new and is happening across the country. He said he hopes the various GOP factions will unite ahead of November for races up and down the ballot.

“This is another party family get-together, and it’s contentious, but the party will have that conversation. I guess we’ll have to see what happens after the primary,” he said.

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