During last year’s election cycle, I wrote a column that suggested that with the economy down, the only thing that might save the Democrats from significant losses was the Republicans themselves.
That theory did play itself out as the Democrats were able to hold on to both houses and a U.S. Senate seat. The Republicans did make progress as they picked up several seats in the Legislature and captured a congressional seat in southwest Washington.
However, there were two reasons they didn’t do better. Conservative Republican candidates, particularly Tea Party members, didn’t do as well as moderates, and the Democrats simply had a better “get out the vote” program.
As we look toward 2012, the Republicans are hoping to win the governorship and take control of the state Legislature. In our state, liberals and conservatives rarely win statewide. Independent voters, who actually are the ones who decide the results of most elections, usually swing to the most moderate candidate, particularly in King County. Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna has been running for governor since he was in high school, and even though he is a conservative, he has been positioning himself as a moderate. Even Democrats concede he has played his cards very well so far with very few mistakes. McKenna was on the King County Council and runs well here. Of late, he has been visible in suburban speaking engagements. Depending on who the Democrats nominate, he has a good chance of becoming the first Republican governor since John Spellman.
Then in a bold move that appears to try and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, Republicans chose conservative ideology over pragmatism — and a better chance of winning — by electing conservative Kirby Wilbur over incumbent Luke Esser as their state party chairman.
Can the Republicans still win in 2012? Of course, but the danger in this change in direction is that they may be moving too far to the right.
There is a clue when the only people cheering this change in direction for the Republicans are conservatives and Democrats. Moderate Republicans acknowledge this could be the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. Not only did the Republicans change direction, but they also embarrassed McKenna in the process. Esser and McKenna worked together in King County, and McKenna put himself on the line to get Esser re-elected. The vote was overwhelming for Wilbur.
Some note with irony that the only true liberal elected governor was Mike Lowery. During that election, the Republicans were already measuring the drapes in the governor’s office for moderate, well respected Congressman Sid Morrison. However, Morrison lost to conservative Attorney General Ken Eikenberry in the primary, then lost to Lowery in the general election.
Last year, McKenna had to appease southwest Washington conservatives, and risk losing King County moderates, by opposing the Obama heath plan. If he is forced to abandon his current strategy to try and keep the party base in line, or worse, face a conservative in the primary, history could repeat itself.