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.
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in the legislature to increase taxes, while simultaneously voting for Democratic majorities that have repeatedly repealed the requirement.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.