The Magazine

They’re on a Losing Streak

But Washington state’s Republicans might get some ­satisfaction this year.

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Bellevue, Wash.
The paradox of politics in Washington state drives Republicans crazy. They can describe it, even explain it, but they can’t overcome it. The result is Washington Republicans have had the longest losing streak in gubernatorial elections of any state GOP (32 years) and haven’t controlled the legislature since 1982.

Rob McKenna

AP Stephen Lane

Here’s the paradox: Washington voters act like Republicans in overwhelmingly opposing tax increases, then turn around and elect the Democrats who have sought to raise their taxes. In one statewide referendum after another, voters have required a two-thirds majority in the legislature to increase taxes, while simultaneously voting for Democratic majorities that have repeatedly repealed the requirement. 

“It’s frustrated us for 50 years,” says former senator Slade Gorton, one of the few Republicans to win a top- tier race in recent decades. (He was last elected in 1994.) Why do so many tax-phobic voters fail to connect with Republicans? “I wish I knew,” Gorton says.

This year may be different. True, President Obama will carry the state effortlessly. Neither the Romney campaign nor the Republican National Committee is active. To hand out Romney yard signs, a local group, Pivot Point, had to be created. Meanwhile, Democratic senator Maria Cantwell is expected to cruise to reelection.

But in the governor’s race, Republican Rob McKenna has a 50-50 chance or better of being elected. Gorton says he’s the best Republican candidate for governor since Dan Evans won in 1972. McKenna outpolled President Obama in 2008, when McKenna was reelected attorney general. Obama won 57.7 percent of the vote, McKenna 59.5 percent.

And GOP state chairman Kirby Wilbur, a popular figure on conservative talk radio for 16 years in Seattle, has energized the state party. His “12 in 12” plan aims to elect McKenna, plus 3 state senators and 8 house members to Democratic seats. That would give Republicans control of the statehouse for the first time in 30 years. Capturing the senate is a reach, but possible. Winning the house is a very long shot.

Wilbur was memorialized, though not by name, in Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Living History. He organized a large demonstration in 1994 when her bus tour to stir support for the Clinton health care plan showed up in Seattle. She wrote the protest consisted of “militia supporters, tax protesters, clinic blockaders.” How could she know the makeup of the crowd? She couldn’t. But she claimed to have feared for her safety.

In 2010, the political paradox was in full flower. Washington has no state income tax and doesn’t want one. An initiative to impose a 5 percent income tax on those earning more than $200,000 was defeated, 64-36 percent, though it would have been offset by a 20 percent cut in property taxes and elimination of major taxes on small business.

That wasn’t all. By 60-40 percent, voters repealed tax hikes on “certain processed foods, bottled water, candy, and carbonated beverages”—enacted, as usual, by the Democrat-controlled legislature. And the two-thirds-vote requirement for tax increases, which the legislature had suspended, was reinstated, 64-36 percent.

In 2012, the two-thirds issue, including a supermajority for passage of a tax increase by referendum, is back on the ballot and headed for approval. Another initiative would allow same-sex marriage. If it passes, it will make Washington the first state to sanction same-sex marriage by popular vote. A third initiative would legalize marijuana but regulate its production and sale.

A fourth initiative would permit “up to 40 publicly funded charter schools.” It has spawned Democrats for Education Reform (DER) and is strongly backed by McKenna. His Democratic opponent, former congressman Jay Inslee, “has not seen the light on important reforms such as charter schools,” according to DER’s director, Lisa Macfarlane. 

This brings us again to the paradox. Why do liberal Democrats—except for candidates such as Inslee—feel free to back initiatives that are the bane of the Washington teachers’ union, the party’s indispensable interest group, and are opposed by top Democratic elected officials? 

Bruce Chapman, chairman of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, says initiatives are not regarded by most voters as partisan. But elections of candidates are. Thus the disconnect.

Seattle’s wealthy class is a microcosm of this phenomenon. “They’re all liberals,” Chapman says. “The billionaires are liberal.” But Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos opposed the tax initiative in 2010. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his father supported it, but now they favor charter schools. Bezos, by the way, has donated $2.5 million to the campaign to authorize same-sex marriage.

McKenna, 50, has seized the education reform issue as his own. There’s general agreement that schools, K-through-college, in Washington are underfunded. McKenna points out that higher education got 16 percent of the state budget when he was student president at the University of Washington in the 1980s. More recently, when his daughter was student president, the share had shrunk to 8 percent. One result: The state’s colleges don’t produce enough skilled workers to meet the needs of Seattle’s high-tech firms.

McKenna would cut spending for state government and its employees and shift that money to schools. A tax increase? Perish the thought. Inslee, 61, who resigned his House seat in March to focus on running for governor, says he would bring “lean management” to government and use the savings—theoretical savings—to fund education.

In televised debates, McKenna and Inslee offer a sharp contrast. McKenna knows more, explains his positions with clarity, is a bit nerdy, and occasionally insinuates he’s the smarter of the two. No doubt he is.

But Inslee, a conventional liberal who talks up “light rail” and wants “a cumulative [environmental] impact assessment” before building a port to ship coal to China, is likable. “On a personality basis, he has the advantage,” says Gorton, an active leader of Republicans at age 84.

McKenna cites two reasons why he should win, despite the long drought in Republican governors. One, he outpolled Obama four years ago. Two, he shares the Republican view that Dino Rossi actually won the governorship in 2004, only to have it stolen when Democrats discovered uncounted ballots in Seattle during a recount. So winning wouldn’t be novel.

He didn’t mention a more convincing reason: He’s almost perfectly positioned as a Republican to win statewide. Except for joining GOP state attorneys general in challenging the constitutionality of Obamacare, he’s not identified with the national party. Obamacare happens to be relatively popular in Washington. A new poll here found 42 percent in favor of repeal or “major changes,” 51 percent against.

The conventional wisdom in Washington holds that Republicans can’t win statewide if they take conservative stands on social issues, abortion especially. If those issues are prominent, they’ll dominate the campaign. McKenna is pro-choice. He favors civil unions, already the law in Washington, and quietly opposes the same-sex marriage initiative on religious grounds. So far, so good.

Seattle and surrounding King County, the Democratic heartland, are a test for McKenna. A saying in Washington is that Democrats can see their entire electorate from the Space Needle, built in Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair. Democrats pay little attention to central and eastern Washington. McKenna cut deeply into the Seattle vote as attorney general, and he needs to again. The rule of thumb is a Republican must get at least
20 percent in Seattle and 39 or 40 percent in King County.

It won’t be easy. Old-timers recall when half the state legislators from Seattle were Republicans. The last one disappeared as the city filled with immigrants from California and New York. Now Seattle is “just a slightly smaller version of San Francisco,” Gorton says. The Rossi campaign died in Seattle in 2004.

But if any Republican can escape destruction in Seattle, it’s McKenna. And if he does, history will be made.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers