OLYMPIA, Aug. 10.—The state Republican Party suddenly seems to have a battle on its hands as five candidates have tossed their hats into the ring for the recently vacated party chairmanship – among them well-known newscaster Susan Hutchison, interim chairwoman Luanne Van Werven, and Jim Walsh, a Grays Harbor committeeman who is a member of the Republican Liberty Caucus.
Also running are Lloyd Becker, a Benton County precinct committee officer, and Christian Berrigan, operations director of the Clark County Republican Party.
It is a fight that may renew factional divisions within the state party. The prominent former KIRO-TV newscaster, who notes that she had supporters in both parties when she ran for the nonpartisan King County Executive position in 2009, is sure to get the spotlight in the Seattle area. But observers say she is going to have a tough time beating Van Werven, who has earned her stripes as a conservative activist at the grass-roots level as chairwoman of the Whatcom County GOP. Meanwhile the Liberty Caucus, a growing force in the party with Rand and Ron Paul as its inspiration, is meeting this weekend to consider an endorsement of Walsh. More important than the question of factionalism, however — will any of them be able to raise cash?
The decision will be made by just 117 people statewide – county chairs and Republican committeemen and women – meaning that campaigning may come down to private meetings in living rooms across the state. The vote comes Aug. 24 at a meeting in Spokane.
A Short Campaign
It is a rather short campaign period – former KVI talk host Kirby Wilbur, chairman since January 2011, resigned July 28, effective immediately, to take a job with the Young America’s Foundation, parent organization of the Young Americans for Freedom. By scheduling the election quickly, at a time when many are on vacation, the state party makes it difficult to organize a campaign – perhaps part of the idea, says state Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee, a Ron Paul delegate to the last national convention. “The establishment, they are terrified of the Liberty group, they have seen the growth in all of the counties, they have seen what is going on and they are in a big hurry because if you gave the Liberty group enough time I think they would have a real shot at getting somebody in there.” Key thing, he says, is that the Liberty Caucus must be given its due — failure to mount an effective campaign in 2014 could be reflected in the next chairmanship election the following January.
The short campaign works against other candidates as well – and may well aid Van Werven, who has been vice-chairwoman of the party since January and has established strong relationships on the Republican State Committee. Hutchison may be well-known in the Seattle area, says Alex Hays, executive director of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, but it may not count much in a campaign where “you have to drive around the state and you have to get to Humptulips to talk to a guy.”
Nevertheless, both women have a strong story to tell, he says – Hutchison, of 25 years on the air, including 20 years as anchor in Seattle, and a proven ability to communicate. And Van Werven, of her work in effectively organizing the party in Whatcom County, which he says might be seen as a microcosm of the state, with a conservative hinterland and liberal Bellingham playing the role of Seattle.
Hutchison Enters Fray
Hutchison formally entered the contest Friday, announcing her candidacy in an email to state committee members, acknowledging her underdog status. “We need a chair with superior skills in fundraising, communication, media, and elections,” she wrote. “Most of all, we need a chair who will unite the party so that we can unite state voters to elect our candidates.”
Hutchison is the executive director of the Charles and Lisa Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences. After a 2009 campaign in which she resisted attempts by Dow Constantine supporters to label her as a Republican, what flavor of Republican is she? “I’m the kind of Republican who can bring people together,” she told Washington State Wire.
“For me this opportunity was a surprise since Kirby Wilbur stepped down rather suddenly. It represents a great opportunity to grow and strengthen the state Republican Party, and I have always believed that a state is stronger when it has two strong parties. Iron sharpens iron, and right now we have a one-party state. It hasn’t been good for the citizens. And so I’m compelled by my concern for all the citizens of the state.”
Van Werven Works From Ground Up
Van Werven, second-in-line when Wilbur made his exit, she was equally surprised to find herself at least temporarily in the party’s top position. “I’ve come up through the ranks,” she said. “My heartbeat is the grassroots. So I’ve been in the trenches and I have been campaigning and fundraising and doorbelling and phone banking for candidates for everything from county council members on up to presidential candidates, so I feel like I have a very deep knowledge of what it takes to win campaigns. I believe that at this point in time, the best candidate, the best chair for the state party is someone who has come from the grassroots, who understands what it takes to win elections. And I believe I’m that person.”
Van Werven says her top priority is to raise the funds needed for the grass-roots ground troops in the 2012 election. “We can have all of the ideas and all of the strategy in the world, but if we don’t have the funds to implement it, it doesn’t mean a thing.”
Walsh is Wild Card
Walsh, owner of a small publishing firm, describes himself as a small-L libertarian, and could play a powerbroker role as balloting moves from the first round and the finalists seek a majority of votes. Most guesses are that the Liberty group has support among a third of executive committee members. “Talk of factions and talk of subgroups and wings, I really resist it, because you talk about abstractions like this and they become real,” Walsh says. “The truth is, people who are active in the Republican Party have more in common they have in different.”
Walsh says the party needs to work on its message. “Some of the inner workings of the party, fundraising and some organizational structural things need to be changed, but the real problem is, and this is specific to the WSRP, people don’t have a clear idea of what the Republican Party stands for. And I’m not talking about committeemen and women in the party. I’m talking about the average voter. And you know, I was certainly struck by something in the last gubernatorial election — so many people who voted to support the two-thirds requirement for tax increases also voted for Jay Inslee, who is by all accounts an aggressive tax and spend liberal. That is strange to me. There is this dissonance there. And we are partly at fault in that. We haven’t framed the tax issue strongly enough, that voters get that our guy should be who they should be voting for, if they want to restrict tax increases.”
Berrigan Touts Conservative Takeover
Berrigan couldn’t be reached by Washington State Wire. But he told his hometown newspaper, The Columbian, that last year’s takeover of the Clark County Republican Party by conservative forces offers an example for the state party. “There’s been a lot of positive things that have been done, and those things should be showcased before the state committee,” he said.
Last year, Berrigan was part of the movement in the southwest Washington county to oust the party’s more centrist leadership, by electing precinct committee officers who supported Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
Becker Wants Change
Becker, of Richland, a former truck driver on disability who is now attending school, prefers the label of constitutionalist. “I am running because he we need to get the Republican Party back on the track,” he says. “It has been busted up, it has been disjointed, it has been everything you possibly can name for the last few years, so when I take a look at what is going on – see, I am not a politician, and that might upset some people. …Politicians running politicians, it just doesn’t work. And so if you’ve got somebody with a different brand of leadership running politicians, I would suspect that the going would be a little tough, but that is where I am at — I enjoy challenges. What I want to try and do is to bring the entire Republican party in the state of Washington back together in one working unit. Everybody will support everybody.”