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Missing the Big Wave: Washington State Republicans Are Left Hanging Zero

If last Tuesday’s election was a key moment in American history, a surge of political evolution, Washington State – frequently credited as a citadel of innovation – now has the distinction of being a throwback. Of the groups responsible for empowering Washington voters to continue clinging to their buggy whips, the Washington State Republican Party and chairman Luke Esser must accept a large share of the blame for missing a 100-year opportunity.

On the federal level, with only a handful of races yet to be called, Republican gains stand at six seats in the Senate and 60 in the House, with an additional three races leaning red. In contrast, Washington’s congressional delegation of 11 (two senators and nine representatives) is now poised to grow by… one.

The GOP’s weak performance in Washington looks even less impressive when the results of state legislative races are considered. Although voters across the state enthusiastically rejected a state income tax, and reinstated the two-thirds majority requirement for tax increases (a voter-approved condition that was pushed aside by Democrats in Olympia), Republicans could only achieve small gains in either legislative body. Although ballots are still being counted, the Democrats will likely continue to have an advantage of three seats in the State Senate and a 16 seats in the House.

It is no surprise that since the ballot counting began to reveal disappointing results as early as the day after election night, damage control seems to have been the order of the day for Washington’s Republican establishment. Although polling before the election clearly predicted close finishes in key races – Dino Rossi’s campaign to remove Sen. Patty Murray and John Koster’s campaign to unseat Rep. Rick Larsen in the Second Congressional District – the call to GOP volunteers to help with ballot rehabilitation was laced with desperation, causing some to wonder if the urgency stemmed from a failure to have the rehab effort operating from sunrise on November 3rd.

Exacerbating the reality that dreams of a Red Washington were of the pie-in-the-sky variety, with Democratic margins in all contested races continuing to widen through Friday, the response from the Republican leadership was… silence.

On Friday morning, Esser broke the calm and spoke with radio talk show host Bryan Suits on KVI 570 AM. His explanation to Suits for why Washington had not followed the national trends for Republican gains: Washington State’s economy was just not quite as bad as the rest of the country. According to Esser, a serious but comparatively mild recession in the Northwest was to blame for dashed Republican hopes. Esser’s rationalization was as hopeless, demoralizing and misplaced as if Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll had blamed the team’s monumental loss this past Sunday on better-than-average weather.

The same day, Esser repeated the analysis to David Boze on KTTH 770 AM, confirming amazingly low expectations for the Republican message and implying that GOP wins in Washington can only come against Democrats who have been handicapped by desperately poor economic conditions.

In Washington, for a variety of reasons, the Republican Party seems to have abandoned its role in this regard to friendly media in the form of talk radio and right-wing blogs, but it must make greater efforts to reach out to the public through these channels.

Despite Esser’s belief in the values of the free market, individualism, and smaller government, a malaise of sorts has persisted within the party during his tenure, one that lives by a self-sustaining doctrine of non-confrontation. Having predicted failure – as Esser implies by defining such narrow conditions for GOP victories – it is not only permissible but rational to avoid risks, play defense, and celebrate holding ground as if one were gaining it.

The new message of weakness brought out by Esser in the wake of the election brings into clearer perspective why the WSRP committed attention and resources to races that polling showed would probably not be nail biters – Rep. Dave Reichert’s Eight District re-election bid and Jaime Herrera’s run for Rep. Brian Baird’s vacated seat in the Third – while neglecting contest that needed TLC in the First, Second and Ninth.

Republican strategists had known since the August primary that John Koster was mounting a serious challenge to knock an incumbent Democrat off his perch. Instead, energy flowed into the efforts to protect Rep. Dave Reichert in the Eighth and boost Jaime Herrera in her Third District run, despite the polling in both races that showed the Republicans as likely first-place finishers. In the First District challenge to überliberal Rep. Jay Inslee, James Watkins worked hard to overcome a virtual media blackout and starvation for resources and won more of the vote than Larry Ishmael did in the previous two elections.

This should not be read as a snub of Reichert or Herrera. As Washington’s second congresswoman (both female House representatives are Republicans), Herrera will make a stellar addition to the state delegation, and Reichert’s return to Congress cements a foothold for Republicans in the heart of blue territory. Nevertheless, losing races in which more should have been done is a difficult pill to swallow.

Even more important in elections than dollars and communications support, however, is the ability of the political parties to inspire and motivate its base and persuade converters into the fold. The process of persuasion transcends pragmatic decisions about candidate viability and media buys, it is the subtle conversation about ideology. It leverages intersections of events and political philosophy to describe the advantage of a particular point of view, and it has the power to change minds.

Esser is an admirable speaker who capably communicates Republican ideals, but what the lackluster results in this last election may force party insiders to admit is that he may lack the critical element for achieving substantial gains in 2012 and beyond. If Esser lacks the vision to conceive of Washington as a red state, that failure could affect more than the political fortunes of Republican office-seekers.

Washington cannot ignore the consequences of years of runaway spending. Furthermore, an increasingly business-averse economic and regulatory climate, creeping efforts to institute oppressive environmental policies, and an incestuous and costly relationship between public employee unions and their government paymasters are on-the-horizon issues that only Republicans can be expected to oppose. On these issues, there must be a leader to prime the conversation, and Washington is fortunate to have a deep bench of passionate and experienced political operatives who might be able to fill that role. Luke Esser should give serious consideration to stepping aside and making room for a fresh voice.

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[Cross-posted by author from Red County.]

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