Opinion

Did Rob McKenna make a mistake? | Bob Roegner

Has Attorney General Rob McKenna finally made a mistake on his way to the Governor's Mansion?

Or has he made another calculated and shrewd move as part of his overall game plan, in which the governor's office may only play the role of stepping stone?

Most observers believe McKenna has been positioning himself to run for governor in 2012 since before his days on the King County Council. Others believe his sights might be set even higher.

The day after President Obama signed health care reform into law, McKenna announced he was joining several other Republican attorneys general and one Democrat to challenge the constitutionality of the new law.

Nationally, polls show opponents of the health care bill out umber supporters 49 percent to 40 percent. Here in Washington, it is 44 percent to 40 percent. The polls give McKenna temporary political justification for the move. Democrats led by Gov. Christine Gregoire reacted immediately, questioning both the motivation and legality of his maneuver. However, McKenna and his allies had apparently planned their steps carefully. First, Republican party chair Luke Esser fired back at the governor with a quote reminding the press of a filing error that had occurred when Gregoire was attorney general. Then, McKenna mentor and former attorney general Slade Gorton came out with legal arguments supporting McKenna’s decision.

Overnight, McKenna became hot political property.

Most experts quoted in the media don’t believe the constitutional argument has much chance of success.

So why would McKenna take on such a highly charged issue with the governor's race only two years away?

Particularly when it may cost him support in voter-rich King County, where he is well known and has out-polled the typical Republican margins?

Many who have worked with McKenna believe his basic philosophy is very conservative. Historically, conservatives don’t win in King County or statewide, but McKenna has recast himself as a moderate, according to both friends and foes. By challenging health care, McKenna is aligning himself with conservatives in what could be a risky move when viewed two years from now. However, insiders who acknowledge the risk suggest that McKenna has a more immediate problem. In repackaging himself as a moderate to improve his chances with independents, McKenna may have hurt himself with conservatives. The Thurston County Republican chairman Scott Roberts was quoted in the Tacoma News Tribune as saying “the base (Republican) was probably waning from him a bit in the past year.”

Others say his problems with the conservative wing of his party were even more significant and had the potential to result in him facing an inter-party challenge from the right. Temporarily, McKenna has made a smart short-term decision that keeps his base in line and protects his position. But what about long-term? And if he doesn’t win the lawsuit, the downside is that he has made himself appear more conservative and less moderate, which Democrats in King County will remind voters as “showing his true colors.”

While he “galvanized” the Republican base, what if he has also galvanized the Democratic base to oppose him? More importantly, independents and moderate voters who occupy the middle ground will actually decide who the next governor is. How will they view McKenna in two years?

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