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News / Northwest

The WA Republicans who wish the Trump era was over

By Jim Brunner, The Seattle Times
Published: June 2, 2024, 12:44pm

YAKIMA — On the weekend after Donald Trump’s historic criminal conviction, a gathering of prominent Washington Republicans ambled along as if the ex-president and current GOP candidate wasn’t looming over the 2024 election.

At the annual Mainstream Republicans of Washington Cascade Conference at the Yakima Convention Center, Trump went virtually unmentioned.

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, one of the last two remaining House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in 2021 over the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, name-checked Ronald Reagan in a Friday night kickoff speech, but not Trump.

Asked about the verdict, which set off furious attacks on the judicial system and calls for revenge from Trump allies — and praise from Democrats seeking to tie all Republican candidates to the newly minted felon — Newhouse ventured no strong opinion.

“Truthfully, I haven’t been paying that close attention,” Newhouse said in an interview. “I’ve been busy, and I have got a lot of things to do in my district … so we’ll see. I don’t know if it’s going to make any difference one way or the other as far as elections are concerned.”

Newhouse allowed that he wonders whether any other person would have been prosecuted in the same manner as Trump, but concluded: “I don’t have an answer to that.”

Raul Garcia, the Republican-endorsed Yakima doctor challenging U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, had a similarly milquetoast response to the verdict, reciting it as a faraway thing that had just happened.

“I think that he was convicted by a jury of your peers, right? And I think that he has the right to appeal it, which they will do. So that’s why I think at the 50,000-foot level, looking down at it, it’s not going to change a lot in the big picture,” Garcia said in an interview.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Dave Reichert, who was also scheduled to appear at the conference, issued a similarly noncommittal statement last week, calling it a “sad day for the nation that merits reflection not rancor.”

Like Garcia and Newhouse, Reichert has declined to publicly say who he’ll vote for in the presidential election.

The please-can-we-not-talk-about-you-know-who vibe in Yakima was a reminder that a swath of Washington Republicans would very much like the Trump era to be over, even if many won’t say it out loud.

After all, Trump’s utter domination of the GOP has been a disaster for Washington Republicans, who have shed suburban legislative and congressional seats, and are now shut out of every statewide elected office.

Deanna Martinez, a Moses Lake City Council member who chairs the mainstream group, called the presidential election “personally, a no-win situation.”

“If there were different candidates to choose or vote for, I would, and I may potentially choose to vote for someone else or write someone in,” she said Saturday. “We can acknowledge what he did, what he didn’t do. But for Washington state to really have a chance of correcting some of these very progressive policies, we need to move beyond Trump.”

The Newhouse race in Central Washington’s 4th Congressional District will be one test of whether Republicans are ready to move past Trump.

Newhouse was one of 10 House Republicans who voted in 2021 to impeach Trump, which would have barred him from running for president again if he’d been convicted by the Senate. Newhouse has defended his vote ever since, while continuing to stake out a conservative record and forcefully criticizing President Joe Biden and his policies.

In contrast to Newhouse’s cautious reaction to the Trump verdict, his chief Republican challengers loudly echoed the ex-president’s claims he was a victim of political persecution.

One of them, Tiffany Smiley, was at the Yakima Convention Center and unlike most in attendance had no problem lashing the jury verdict against Trump.

“Let me ask you, what’s the crime? What’s the crime?” Smiley said, saying the conviction sets a dangerous precedent.

Trump was convicted of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to a cover-up of payments to porn actress and director Stormy Daniels.

Smiley, a Pasco veteran’s advocate who ran for Senate against Sen. Patty Murray two years ago, argued voters deserve to know where Newhouse stands on Trump.

“How in the world is he going to work with President Trump? Because it’s clear that Trump is our nominee,” Smiley said. “He’s only gaining in the polls. He is only going to gain in the polls from this whole verdict.”

The Mainstream Republicans of Washington was founded some four decades ago to represent the moderate wing of the GOP, in the tradition of politicians like former Gov. Dan Evans, who famously clashed with the far right and publicly ousted from the party the extremist John Birch Society.

The Yakima conference agenda, set well before the Trump verdict, was focused on meaty issues including fighting Democratic-led efforts to limit natural gas and tear down hydroelectric dams, and how to combat the deadly rash of fentanyl overdoses.

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The mainstreamers have thrown their weight behind Reichert and other candidates they view as sensible and electable in a Democratic-leaning state. In some cases, such as the governor’s race, their picks are at odds with the state Republican Party’s endorsements.

At the recent GOP convention in Spokane, for example, delegates overwhelmingly endorsed Semi Bird for governor over Reichert, who withdrew from consideration after blasting the endorsement process as chaotic and dishonest. Bird did not attend the Yakima conference.

At the state convention, MAGA gear was everywhere, but this weekend, there was nary a red Trump hat in sight.

Former Secretary of State Sam Reed said he hopes Washington Republicans can distinguish themselves from the national scene with middle-of-the-road candidates.

“Our group isn’t here to hurl moral invective and air our grievances and say how terrible the other people are. We’re here to elect people who are interested in governing,” he said.

It’s not clear how much sway the mainstream group holds in the modern Republican Party.

The mainstream gathering attended by a couple of hundred people, including elected officials, political candidates and their handlers, appeared to be outnumbered at the convention center by a weight-loss gathering down the hall.

The organization used to direct substantial money to candidates in past elections, but its PAC has raised no money in 2024, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.

While Democrats have by and large trumpeted the Trump guilty verdict, one prominent candidate reacted last week with a silence that would have fit right in with the mainstream Republicans.

U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, asked by Axios for comment on the Trump verdict, pointed to a social media post about helping fishermen in Southwest Washington.

Gluesenkamp Perez, who flipped the 3rd Congressional District for Democrats in 2022 in one of the biggest upsets of the year, is now running for reelection in an area that backed Trump.

She’s facing Republican challengers including Trump-endorsed veteran Joe Kent, and Camas City Councilmember Leslie Lewallen, who both condemned the New York verdict as a travesty.

Lewallen was among the few openly pro-Trump candidates endorsed by the mainstream Republicans, and appeared at the conference, telling the GOP moderates she has a better shot than Kent at regaining the 3rd District seat.

With the presidential election fast approaching and the prospect of Trump being criminally sentenced just days before the start of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee next month, Garcia, the Senate contender, said he wants to see an end to the divisiveness plaguing U.S. politics.

“Very honestly, I want to see a leader that wants to unite the country,” he said.

He expressed no opinion on which presidential candidate that might be.