Analyzing the Washington State elections and the future of republican politics
By Adam A Isackson
This article began as a tool to help me better understand the Washington State election results, results that admittedly, at least initially, surprised me. I know in writing this I now have a better understanding of the state of republican politics and I hope the readers of this will also gain something from this. Additionally please take the time to share your thoughts and ideas with me and those who hold power to effect change inside the party. This is an ongoing exercise and I hope to write a follow up on this in the near future with some thoughtful and constructive additions.
2010 nationally was the most successful election in many years for republicans, even dwarfing in many ways the landslide midterm of ’94. Americans were clearly dissatisfied with a president and a congress that showed nothing but contempt for the will of the American people on numerous issues. A lack of focus and results on the economy, overstepping on healthcare and a decidedly left wing and partisan agenda are just a few of the problems Americans saw in the most recent congress and their president. While it certainly isn’t unusual for a sitting president to lose seats in their first midterm, Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 being the only recent exception, it’s hard to minimize the loss of 63 seats by a president who started his first term with staggeringly high approval.
Despite such overwhelming success nationally a very different result was experienced in Washington State. While Washington State was certainly on the forefront of change during the republican revolution of ’94, experiencing one of the largest waves in the country, the wave in 2010 was rather muted in comparison. Many have described the Washington State elections as more of a ripple then a wave and it’s pretty hard to argue against that point. 2010, despite the overwhelming good news nationally, has to be seen as a huge disappointment for Washington State republicans. While many candidates and staffers, myself included, remained optimistic after a primary that showed numerous races as being in play at both the congressional and legislative level these potential victories just didn’t materialize. In fact many candidates lost significant ground after the primary.
At the state level we still have one party rule with republicans making small, but mostly insignificant, gains in both of our state legislative bodies. The closing gap in the state senate is having some effect on the current session but a slew of disappointing loses in 2010’s legislative races, a pickup of only one congressional seat, a devastating loss in our US Senate race and the loss of a libertarian minded state supreme court justice are certainly not statistics to be happy about.
So why did we, in large part, fail to ride the wave of one of the biggest political landslides in our life times?
In the aftermath I’ve attended several analysis’s of this election and I’ve sat down with many friends and fellow campaign staffers, who like I do all have their theories but are still a little perplexed with some of the results.
The following are a few points worth examining:
Vote by mail
Vote by mail has created a new reality in every state where it has been strongly implemented and Washington State is no exception. It’s easier now than ever before to cast a ballot and it has become relatively easy for a party get out the vote effort to be successful. This is a great advantage for democrats in particular in this state; they simply have a larger base to draw from. While Republicans were certainly motivated in this last election to vote early democrats had a huge list to work with of new and infrequent voters drawn into the 2008 election via Obama’s candidacy. They created a concerted effort to utilize that advantage and succeeded. It is likely that Washington State will continue to experience relatively high turnout in the near future when compared to other states and this likely will pose a challenge for republicans in the future as well.
The incumbents were just too well entrenched
In hindsight it very well could’ve been naive to assume that many of these races were ever in play, despite encouraging primary results. Incumbents such as Murray, Larsen and Smith all won by landslides in their most recent elections prior to 2010 (62% for Larsen in ’08, 65% for Smith in ’08 and 55% for Murray in ’04). While significant gains were made in the republican vote percentage the wave, or any realistic wave for that matter, just wouldn’t and couldn’t be big enough to defeat entrenched incumbents.
The state is becoming more liberal
It’s no secret that republicans have had little success in recent years in Washington State. Despite up and down trends nationally Washington State has almost been a continual downward spiral post ’94 for Republicans. After the 94 elections Republicans held 1 US Senate seat, 7 of 9 congressional seats, 24 of 49 state senate and 62 of 98 state house seats. Currently, even after the disappointing gains made in this election, Republicans hold 0 US Senate seats, 4 of 9 congressional seats, 22 state senate seats and 41 state house seats. It’s also worth mentioning that Washington State hasn’t had a republican governor since John Spellman left office in 1985 and that Obama defeated John McCain by 14 points in 2008.
The party lacks strong leadership
It’s certainly beyond my want or desire to start pointing fingers but it’s hard to argue against the point that we have been lacking strong leadership inside the republican movement in this state. Great times demand great leaders and if we are ever to be successful we need a true statesman to rise to leadership somewhere in our party. Someone with the intelligence, natural charisma and passion that will draw others towards our ideas is desperately needed. Though it seems apparent that Dino, the closest thing to a leader the Republican Party has in this state, will likely retire from actively seeking public office, the rise of Rob McKenna can’t be ignored for much longer. I’m a betting man and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that a run for governor is almost inevitable. Considering Rob’s successful run and overwhelming reelection there’s no question he would be in a strong position. On a state party note Kirby Wilbur has just been elected the new party chairman, and after speaking to him it is clear to me at least that he understands where most of the problems and opportunities lie. Hopefully these two men will rise to the challenge and our other leaders will join them in reaching out to the voters of this state.
This is one that hits home with me, being that I’ve been responsible for taking a realistic look at campaign budgets and structure for some years now. As stated in the last point it’s not my desire to play the blame game (I’ve worked with many talented and good people over the years) however in my opinion the party apparatus is completely broken. I’m sure I’ll receive some flak for stating this but the state party, many of the county parties, the organizational committees and the consulting firms have made it exceedingly difficult for many candidates and managers to run successful campaigns. This fact has led to hesitation on the part of numerous, well qualified individuals considering a run for public office. There are so many problems that It’s hard to know where to begin. First of all there needs to be better communication on everyone’s part during the entire campaign process. When a candidate or campaign can’t even get someone to call them back you know you have a huge problem on your hands.
A lack of cohesion – United we stand, Divided we fall
It also must be mentioned that we face a major problem inside our party when it comes to cohesion. The constant bickering between the libertarian, conservative and moderate wings of the party does all of us little good. Instead we need to come together, take a realistic look at our electoral situation in this state, formulate a message that will connect with the large majority of the people of this state and present that message cohesively. Primaries are where the battles should be fought and those who possess an all or nothing attitude about their particular brand of ideology must not be allowed to hold positions of leadership inside the Washington State Republican party. As Ronald Reagan once said your 80% friend is not your 20% enemy. All of us need to be willing to enthusiastically support well qualified candidates who we agree with on the vast majority of issues. Single issue voting is a ridiculous outlook to take towards the problems we face as a nation and a state. If we all fight this battle alone, or in small groups we will continue to fail. If the factions band together with a shared sense of purpose we can and will be successful in future years. On a positive note I just attended the Roanoke conference at ocean shores, a meeting of several hundred, mostly high level party members and the mood was decidedly healthier than it has been in recent years.
The republican disconnect with voters
The people of Washington State, despite what we may think, are with us on numerous important issues. The single greatest failure of the 2010 elections very well may be the inability on our part to take advantage of that public sentiment. As the public proved with their votes on 2/3rds majority and a repeal of the legislatures tax increases a large majority of the people of this state are tired of a legislature that continues to impose its will on them with little to no respect for their will. While they remain unhappy with the leadership of democrats their wariness towards Republicans of the past will continues to be a big barrier to Republican success. Unless we give voters a compelling reason for change the simple advantage of numbers will shut Republicans out of most district and statewide races.
Failure to formulate and market a strong message
I’ve told anyone who would listen for years, the party is in desperate need of a unified, statewide message that our candidates can run on, and that we can incorporate into a mass media marketing plan. The party has had a problem raising significant sums of money in recent years for a variety of reasons and one way to change that would be by simply produce a compelling TV / radio piece that could be pitched to potential donors. As I’ve advised candidates to do for years – to be successful you must focus on popular proposals and the important issues. In most cases if you can’t frame your argument in a way that 70-80% of people in this state will find appealing you’re talking about the wrong issue or approaching that issue in the wrong way. The contract with America was wildly popular because it did just that. Republicans put together a list of popular proposals and gave themselves a performance deadline. We need to prove that we will not only support better policy but that we will govern in a much more constructive and receptive way. A well thought out, contract with Washington State, aggressively marketed could be a real shot in the arm for our chances in 2012.
In closing we desperately need to change the way we do business and market our ideas in this state. Our party needs a new wave of strong leaders to come to the forefront, and they need a strong message and a better vehicle for delivering that message. United we stand, divided we fall. Together we can be successful and change the direction of this state and our country.
About the author:
Adam has served as campaign manager of 3 legislative campaigns in Washington’s 26th legislative district, served as a PCO, and has volunteered for numerous candidates since ’98.
You can reach the author via email with your questions, comments and concerns @ [email protected]