OLYMPIA, July 29.—Kirby Wilbur, the never-shy-with-an-opinion chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, abruptly announced his resignation Monday evening to take a position with a conservative youth organization in Washington, D.C.
Wilbur, who gained fame as “Hot Talk Kirby,” the longtime morning drive talk host on KVI radio, took over the reins at the state Republican Party in January 2011, and was reelected chairman this year despite an election that left Republicans wondering if they’ll ever paint the Evergreen State red again.
Wilbur won’t be around for the next election. In a press release issued just after 5 p.m. Monday, Wilbur said he has been offered a five-year contract with the Young America’s Foundation, best known as the parent organization for the Young Americans for Freedom, the campus-based conservative political organization. “I would be foolish not to accept,” he said. “I will be moving to the ‘other Washington’ within the next couple of months to write this next chapter in my life.
“It has been an honor to serve as chairman of the WSRP since January 2011. We have had many successes and I have had some failures. The party has a good crop of up-and-coming leaders and a strong staff, and it will continue moving forward no matter whose hand is on the helm.”
Wilbur did not return press calls Monday night and let the news release speak for itself.
Wilbur, of the booming voice, the always-quotable remark and the physique of one who has spent years seated behind a microphone, was one of the leading figures on the right side of state politics long before he won the party’s chairmanship. He gained fame as one of the original members of the KVI-AM lineup in 1993 when it shook the industry and the Capitol itself with its pioneering conservative hot-talk format. He was the last of that original crew to leave, making his exit just after the November 2009 election when station management elected not to renew his contract. Shortly thereafter the station changed its format to classic rock and saw its ratings plummet. Recently it has resumed the talk format, and Wilbur has filled in occasionally as guest host for his friend, John Carlson.
Wilbur capitalized on his prominence in political circles in 2010 as Washington-state chairman for Americans for Prosperity, a grassroots political organization. The work put him in touch with conservative activists across the state, and the personal touch paid off the following year when he challenged two-term state Republican chairman Luke Esser in a stormy meeting held in Tukwila. Wilbur beat Esser two to one.
Though he might have been a radio celebrity, Wilbur always liked to remind audiences that he has been active in the party since he was a wee lad. In 2011 he told a gathering of Republican activists in Ocean Shores about a prank he pulled with fellow UW Young Republicans Carlson, consultant Brett Bader and others. When President Jimmy Carter flew into Boeing Field for an election-eve appearance in 1980, they were on hand to greet him, carrying signs declaring that the University of Washington Young Democrats loved Carter. “Of course when all the advance people saw the young people coming, they said, oh my God, young people, they’ll look great, put them down in front. So they put us right there in front of the podium and the president is there, and we flipped the signs over and they said, ‘Vote for Reagan,’ and ‘Reagan in 1980,’ and we were so crammed in by the crowd we couldn’t move. The union thugs started moving and the Secret Service surrounded us, and Jimmy Carter’s last political rally, ladies and gentlemen, in Seattle, Washington, was spent looking at Reagan signs in front of him.”
Blue Streak Continues
Back when he won his race for state Republican chair, Wilbur said delicately of the 2010 elections, “I didn’t think we did as well as we could have.” But last year victory was as elusive for Wilbur as it had been for his predecessors. Though the party had one of its ablest gubernatorial candidates of recent years, then-Attorney General Rob McKenna, and early polls showed McKenna well in the lead, a well-organized and more technically savvy Democratic-Party leadership helped Jay Inslee pull ahead during the summer of 2012, and McKenna was unable to regain the upper hand. Republicans gained seats in the state House and Senate, but managed only to win one statewide race, for secretary of state. Monday-morning quarterbacks were quick to blame the state party’s get-out-the-vote drive, but it might be noted that the Obama campaign had developed the most advanced coordinated-campaign technology yet deployed nationally. And on the Republican side, the combination of a lackluster presidential candidate and congressional candidates who campaigned on such issues as “legitimate rape” created problems for the party everywhere. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman was the only successful Republican statewide candidate in any of the three Western states.
In an interview with Washington State Wire just after last year’s election, Wilbur said, “tweak a thing here, tweak a thing there – Rob lost by a margin of 60,000 votes out of 3 million, and you turn 30,000 of those votes around and we win. I have looked at voter turnout numbers and it appears that Eastern Washington didn’t turn out in as big numbers as Western Washington did – that’s an issue. Messaging is an issue. There were a lot of issues out there, and I will be honest with you, I wish we had lost by 30 points, because when you lose by 30 points, there is nothing you could have done. And when you lose by one or two, there is a lot of introspection by a lot of armchair critics who all of a sudden know exactly what is wrong and exactly how to fix it.”
Wilbur was a strong supporter of Mitt Romney in last year’s election, which placed him in an odd position. Though he counted himself as a conservative second to none, he battled supporters of libertarian Ron Paul as they attempted to win seats as delegates to the national convention. The Paul surge alienated longtime party activists, he said, because Paul’s supporters did not have a long track record of involvement with the party. The libertarian forces remain strong, if not stronger, and healing the rift at the grass-roots level might have proven difficult. Wilbur said last November the party’s biggest challenge, however, is external. “We may have to find a different way to present our case for a smaller government and a stronger economy and prosperity, but that is our message, and our message is based on time-honored truths and on time-proven truths. So am I disappointed? Oh, yeah. I was in the fetal position for a couple of days. But I have come out of it now. It is a matter of getting up and dusting ourselves off and working harder and smarter next year.”
Majority Coalition Offered One Victory
In one sense, though, last year’s election did deliver the GOP a big win, though it may not have seemed so at the time. The party put itself firmly behind state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and ultimately Benton won a tough race for re-election by just 78 votes. The margin amounted to seven one-hundreths of a percentage point, yet that squeaker proved hugely significant. It gave Republicans 23 votes in the Senate, Democrats 26, and it made it possible for two centrist Democrats to tip the balance when they opted to caucus with the Republicans this year. Their action created a new 25-24 majority that effectively thwarted Democratic dominance at the statehouse and stopped any talk of a big tax increase. Wilbur was one of the biggest cheerleaders for the Majority Coalition Caucus. This off-year election cycle he was hoping to expand its numbers in a sure-to-be-hot Senate contest in the 26th Legislative District, the state’s only partisan Senate contest, in which Democratic appointee Nathan Schlicher of Gig Harbor faces a challenge from Republican state Rep. Jan Angel of Port Orchard. Insiders note internal debates have raged within the party about the adoption of next-generation computer technology for get-out-the-vote efforts – the 26th District race in many respects is expected to be a test run for the 2014 cycle.
Under the bylaws of the state Republican Party, the party must elect a permanent chairperson within 90 days of a vacancy. Until then, vice chairwoman Luanne VanWerven will serve as interim chair. Among the names being whispered by party insiders as potential successors are former state Rep. Bill Hinkle, state Rep. Chad Mangendanz, former McKenna campaign manager Randy Pepple and Alex Hays, executive director of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington.